Kapiolani Community College’s annual graduation ceremony on The Great Lawn in 2009. (Courtesy Flickr)

Agree to Degree

Initiatives and Funding driving push for Graduation at Hawaii Universities and Colleges

Between Summer and Fall of 2014 and the Spring of 2015 Kapiolani Community College has awarded over 2,200 degrees and certificates to students, but only 446 of those students are expected to participate in commencement exercises this Friday at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Since 2010, there has been a steady increase in both enrollment and awarding of degrees and certificates to students in the University of Hawaii Community College system; Over the next decade those numbers are only expected to continue to increase.

While numbers don’t lie, they also don’t completely tell the entire story.

KCC recorded an enrollment of 8,376 students in 2013 and grew to 9,301 in 2014, those numbers don’t account for students that drop out and students that don’t continue in those fields of study. The community college campus at the foothills of iconic Diamond Head recorded 2,278 individual course withdrawals from students that are in the school’s Liberal Arts program. At least 70.6 percent of its Liberal Arts students continue on from the fall to the spring semester and only 46 percent of students persisted from fall to fall, meaning that less than half of the students returned the following year.

While initially alarming, keep in mind this data however doesn’t account for students who’ve transferred to another community colleges, or to four year Universities like the flagship campus at Manoa, or even students that have received a two-year degree or certificate and have opted not to continue their education.

The questions that remain though are, what contributes to students not returning to college for the following year, and why are students taking longer to graduate?

“We saw students were taking six years to do a four-year program, and that’s not good,”

— Louise Pagotto

According to the University of Hawaii Community College Instructional Annual Report of Program Database roughly about 50 percent of liberal arts majors at KCC are part-time students, meaning they take less than 12 credits a semester and are most likely working part time to help pay for school.

Ms. Lam works on a sculpture in her Art class. (Photo: Kent Nishimura)

Wai Nam “Hebe” Lam is graduating this semester with a Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts degree from KCC. In the fall she will be attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where she will be studying Interior Architecture & Design. She took a year and a half break from school, which did lengthen the time spent on completing the requirements for her AA degree.

“It’s hard sometimes for students when they find a job they enjoy,” said Lam. “Like for me, I just wanted to make money and live life and not worry about school.”

Lam said she made decent money working as a server at a restaurant and school became just an afterthought for her. After spending almost a year and a half out of school working full-time, she began to analyze her choices and got introspective about what she wanted to do with her life.

“I looked at an older lady who worked with me,” said Lam. “I don’t want to be like her when I grew older, I realized I need to finish school, that’s why I came back.”

UH system administrators were shocked at the length of time it was taking students to finish programs and be awarded their degrees.

“We saw students were taking six years to do a four-year program, and that’s not good,” said Louise Pagotto, KCC Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. “All the extra time students are in school equals lost wages from not being in a job.”

Some students were taking anywhere from three to five years to complete an associate’s degree which is typically considered a two year degree. Thus, the 15 to Finish campaign was launched. As part of both a larger statewide initiative following the national trend of getting students to graduate on time with the hopes of increasing the number of workers with a college degree.

Commencement Exercises on the Great Lawn in 2014. (Courtesy UH System)

The goal of the 15 to Finish campaign is to get students to complete 15 credits per semester or 30 credits per year with the goal of graduating on time.

In 2012 all UH campuses experienced a 14.7 percent increase in undergraduate students enrolled in 15 or more credits; System-wide 10,699 students enrolled in 15 or more credits in the Fall 2012 semester as compared to the 9,326 students in Fall 2011 according to a report released by the UH system. By the time Fall 2013 came around over 25 percent of the undergraduate students across the UH system were enrolled in 15 or more credits.

One of the major reasons for this push is the State of Hawaii’s 55 by ’25 campaign. It’s goal is simple: To have 55 percent of working age adults statewide hold a two or four-year college degree by the year 2025.

Graduation Outcomes: Degrees and Certificates. Information from UHCC Strategic Report

For 2015, KCC received $1,214,824 from funds appropriated to the overall University budget. As Vice Chancellor Pagotto explains it, the money that the college receives is dependent upon the school meeting certain benchmarks that are set for them every year. The recommended target for degrees and certificates awarded that the school had to meet was 835. In 2014, they exceeded that number by 81 percent, issuing 1,513 degrees. The school did not meet the requirements of issuing 319 STEM field degrees, coming up 19 degrees short, they lost out on $17,499 in funding for 2015.

Kapiolani Community College Performance Funding FY15. (Data from UHCC Strategic Report)

In 2009, the UH system announced the adoption of reverse transfer at the UH System’s community college campuses. Under the program, transfer students who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year campus would be able to receive an associate’s degree if they’ve already met requirements with credits earned.

According to university officials, more than half of Hawaii community college students transfer to four-year universities like UH Manoa and West Oahu without an associate’s degree.

What remains unclear is whether or not these auto-awarded degrees are counted among the degrees and certificates issued that count towards benchmarks for community college performance funding.

“There are a lot of new system level initiatives that are in line with the national trend,” said Merrissa Brechtel, KCC Instructional & Student Support Specialist. “To get our workforce adequately trained to be contributing productive global citizens to help meet our communities needs.”

Brechtel says that there are a handful of resources available to students to help them track their progress, or the time to degree completion. As part of an effort to make the process of determining time to completion and which classes are needed to complete degree programs, the UH system is making it’s homebrew STAR system the official arbiter of degree completion starting in the Fall of 2015.

Students walk by the Ilima building, which houses the Student Service Center and the campus administration offices one afternoon. (Photo: Kent Nishimura)

“It’s vitally important that students get to know STAR,” said Brechtel. “Which students mainly use to just check their transcripts and grades. It’s really important, to shows them what (courses) they have left to take.

In a memo dated July 8, 2014 UH President David Lassner stated: “Students will be able to rely fully on the information provided in STAR for their degree requirements and will be held harmless should any incorrect information in STAR negatively impact their progress to graduation.”

Not only are students able to see what courses they’ve completed towards their degree, but also with a relatively recent addition to STAR, using the Graduation Pathway tool students are able to see how they should finish their degree. The graduation pathway tool automatically calculates what courses are needed to finish the degree, and what order the student should take those courses in.

“It made things so much easier to see what credits I needed,” said Lam. “I was worried the paper (curriculum sheet) wasn’t up to date and I wasn’t taking the right classes I needed.”

Brechtel says that the Graduation Pathway tool is a great resource that all students should use. By knowing what courses are required to take students can avoid taking courses that don’t count towards their degree program.

“I see this all the time,” said Brechtel. “When we’re talking about time to completion, time is money. It’s costing them (students) a significant amount of money, so unless they have a lot of money to burn, I’d advise students to really get to know how to read and use STAR.”

The one current drawback to utilizing STAR is that currently all the data that it displays is input by hand with data from curriculum sheets that are supposed to reflect what credits have been earned. There certainly is room for error. Brechtel says that while it’s not in the immediate future to integrate the UH Banner system with STAR, it is on the list of things that the University is looking into.

STAR isn’t the only resource available to students. At KCC there are over 35 counselors available to advise students in all the different fields of study that the school offers. The school website describes the job of counselors as working with students to find the best path to reach the students’ goals and be successful. Counselors can help students by discussing new approaches to solving a problem they might encounter, either academically or otherwise.

For students graduating KCC only holds one commencement ceremony a year: at the close of the spring semester. The way Merrissa Brechtel explains it; Graduation is the official recording of an academic credential. It marks the actual ending of the time a student spent pursuing a degree through a program. Commencement is the celebration of that accomplishment or the formal ceremony that acknowledges that the student completed their degree.

“Participating in commencement is not mandatory,” said Brechtel. “But it’s a nice thing. It’s a feel good thing. It’s a celebration and recognition of that accomplishment.”

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