Journal of Rural Community Psychology               Volume E8   Number 2   Fall 2005



Expanding Higher Education Opportunities in Rural

Hawaii Communities: Lessons Learned in a

University – Community Partnership


Cheryl M. Ramos

University of Hawaii at Hilo





In an effort to expand higher education opportunities to the rural communities of the North region on the Island of Hawaii, the North Hawaii Education and Research Center (NHERC) was established in 2001.  The NHERC links the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) and Hawaii Community College (HCC) located in East Hawaii with the rural communities in the northern region of the Island of Hawaii.  This article provides an overview of the North Hawaii region on the Island of Hawaii and the successes, challenges, and lessons learned related to programming higher educational opportunities in rural communities.




The North Hawaii region of the Island of Hawaii encompasses the communities of the districts of Hamakua (including Paauilo, Paauhau, Honokaa, and Kukuihaele), North Kohala, and South Kohala (including Waimea-Puuanahulu, Kawaihae, and Waikoloa).  The resident population of the North Hawaii is approximately 25,000. 


Table 1.  Resident Population of North Hawaii


Resident Population

% Total Resident Population







North Kohala









                Source:  North Hawaii Outcomes Project


One of the core economic activities in this region for over a century was sugar production.  The demise of Hawaii's sugar industry in the 1990’s sent tremors throughout the State of Hawaii but was especially devastating for the rural communities of North Hawaii.  The economic transition that other rural communities throughout the country had experience had found its way to North Hawaii.  The economic landscape and lifestyle of communities which were historically agricultural were undergoing significant change (Human & Wasem, 1991; MDC Inc, 2001). Thousands of acres of land that were formerly planted in sugar were taken out of production and lay fallow.  Individuals who had grown up in the plantation communities, those who had seen their parents and grandparents employed by the sugar plantations, could no longer depend on the industry for their employment. 


Residents of the North Hawaii region faced new challenges and also new opportunities.  The once thriving plantation communities were being transformed into bedroom communities for the growing tourism industry which was fast becoming the major economic engine of the north and west regions of the Island of Hawaii.  Land was made available to independent farmers and new agricultural endeavors began to take root, including cattle ranching, dairy farms, forestry, and diversified agriculture.  New ventures in health care, astronomy, and tourism began to flourish in North Hawaii.  As the lifestyle and economy of the North Hawaii region changed, so too did the employment opportunities and educational needs of the region. 


Residents in North Hawaii face several challenges and barriers to higher education.  First, the educational attainment levels of residents in North Hawaii is very diverse (see Table 2).  If we consider the percentage of the population 25 years and older who have less than a high school education, we find that the North Hawaii region (7.5%) is close to the State (8.1%).  However, if we consider the number of residents 25 years and older without a high school diploma we find great disparity in the region, with a range from 8.4% (Kawaihae-Waikoloa) to 24.9% (Honokaa-Kukuihaele).


Table 2.  Residents 25 Years and Older Without High School Diploma



Number of residents 25 year and older without a high school diploma

% of Total Resident Population


334 of 3954



506 of 4517


North Kohala

640 of 3961



658 of 2643



258 of 1379





            Source:  North Hawaii Outcomes Project


Second, educational aspirations of young adults in the North Hawaii region vary by area (see Table 3).  Exit surveys completed by seniors graduating from public high schools in the region indicate that overall most students plan to go to school and work after graduation.  However, when we look at students' plans by area we see some differences.  More students from Kohala High School and Kanu O Ka Aina Charter School indicate that they will go to school and work (78% and 100% respectively) than students from Honokaa High School (52%).  More students from Honokaa High School indicate that they will only work after high school (31%) than students from Kohala High School and Kanu O Ka Aina (8% and 0% respectively).


Table 3.  2004 Senior Exit Plans



% Plans for School and Work

%Plans for Work Only

%Other Plans (school only, military, school+military, other)

Honokaa High School




Kohala High School




Kanu O Ka Aina




            Source:  DOE (2004)Senior Exit Plans Summary Reports,


The difference between students' decisions regarding future plans regarding school and work as a function of the school they attend  may be due to barriers to college attendance at the community, system, family, and personal levels that have been found to impact post-secondary education plans in other rural communities (Haas, 1992; James, Wyn, Baldwin, Hepworth, McInnis, & Stephanou, 1999; Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman & Gallagher, 2003; Wirthlin Worldwide, 2002).  At the community level, students have to travel great distances outside of their communities to access college courses.  High school students in the rural communities are not able to take college or university courses as are their urban counterparts who participate in "Running Start" programs which allow high school students to earn both high school and college credit for college courses.  Students who work part-time or full-time may be working in communities that do not have higher education institutions.  In addition, students in rural communities may have limited contact with college-educated role models.  At the system/organizational level, rural high schools often have fewer resources to prepare students for college than urban school systems.  Some assert that there is a bias in the education system in which students who are not viewed to be "college material" are not encouraged to pursue college nor given information about higher education opportunities.  At the family level, parents may not encourage their children to seek higher education.  Some parents may urge students to work in order that they may contribute to the family household income.  Parents may view college as unaffordable and may lack information on financial assistance available to them.  At the individual level, the student may be more interested in immediate employment for which a university qualification is not required, less likely to believe that a university degree is necessary, and more likely to secure a job for an immediate and steady income rather than pursue an education and delay earning an income.  The student may lack the required competencies in reading and writing to pursue studies and lack the confidence to complete college level courses.


In recognition of the change occurring in the North Hawaii region and in an effort to respond, at the community level, to the higher education challenges in the rural North Hawaii communities, the Hawaii State Legislators from the North Hawaii region introduced State of Hawaii House Concurrent Resolution (HCR)186 requesting the University of Hawaii at Hilo to study the feasibility of establishing an education and research center of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to be located in Honokaa, Hawaii located in the North Hawaii region of the Island of Hawaii.  HCR 186 was passed on March 14, 2001 and stimulated numerous community discussions and meetings between the residents of North Hawaii, civic groups, public and private high schools, State government agencies, non-profit service providers, the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and Hawaii Community College regarding ways to enhance and expand higher education and training opportunities in North Hawaii.  After considerable community mobilization and legislative "influence" funding was secured and the North Hawaii Education and Research Center was established.


NHERC Planning Group & Committees


The guiding and driving force of the NHERC has been its Planning Group.  The Planning Group meets monthly and is open to any member of the community that wishes to participate.  The membership of the Planning Group has changed over time as old members leave and new members join the group.  However, a core group of members has continued to be actively involved in guiding NHERC activities through its committee structure.  The "core group" includes the State Representative representing the district (who is the Chair of the Finance Committee of the State House of Representatives); Administrators, staff, and faculty of the University of Hawaii at Hilo; Administrators and staff of Hawaii Community College; Executive Director of Hale Ho'ola (long-term care facility); Principal of Honokaa High School; Representatives from numerous community including Honokaa Businessman's Association, Salvation Army, ARC of Kona, Hamakua Lions Club, Honokaa Police Department, Waipio Taro Farmers, Paauilo Camp Community Association, and other community residents.


The NHERC Planning Group established several committees to direct its activities. The committees are 1) Oversight and Executive Committee, 2) Programming and Evaluation Committee, 3) Outreach and Publicity Committee, and 4) Facilities and Budgeting Committee.  This paper focuses on the activities of the Programming Committee, for which I am Co-Chair.




After numerous meetings of the NHERC Planning Group ion Committee, it was apparent that the NHERC was trying to provide educational and training opportunities to multiple target groups in the North Hawaii region.  The first target group includes individuals interested in pursuing Associate or Bachelor degrees (Degree Group).  The second group includes individuals who are interested in specialized training and certification programs (Training Group).  The third group includes individuals who are interested in one-time classes, either credit or non-credit, for personal and professional development (Professional Development Group).   


Degree Group.  We began our program offerings with courses designed to meet the needs of the "Degree Group".  The first course offered was Psychology 100, Introductory Psychology, in the Summer of 2002.  Since I was a former resident of the North Hawaii community and a full-time Psychology faculty member at UHH, I agreed to be the instructor for the Psychology 100 course.  Flyers were sent out to the high schools in the region and advertisements were run in the local newspapers.  High school counselors were contacted to recruit juniors and seniors in their schools who would be able to earn both high school and college credits for the course through the “Running Start Program” administered through UHH.  Hale Ho’ola Hamakua, the state-run long term care facility in the community, made one of its training rooms available for the class.  Twenty students enrolled in and successfully completed the course.  Approximately 50% of the class consisted of high school students.  The ability to earn both high school and college credits likely contributed to their interest in the class.  The other students enrolled in the class were adults employed full-time or part-time and working toward a college degree.  The tuition for the course was $390 for which several students received financial assistance.  Our first attempt to expand higher education opportunities in North Hawaii was a success and we planned course offerings for the following Fall and Spring terms.


In light of the success of the Psychology 100 class and in order to maintain the momentum of course offerings, we offered Psychology 320, Developmental Psychology, in Fall 2002.  Although the course was an upper division level course, we thought the course would have broad application and interest.  Nine students enrolled and completed the course, however no high school students enrolled in the class.  In Spring 2003, Sociology 100, Principles of Sociology, was offered.  This course was selected because it was a general education course (which would be acceptable and transferable to nearly every college) and we had a Sociology faculty member who was actively involved in NHERC planning activities who was willing to teach the class.  Ten students enrolled in and completed the course, including four high school students.  Classes offered in Summer 2003 included Psychology 100 and Political Science 101 (Introduction to Political Science).  Due to low enrollment both courses were cancelled. 


No courses were scheduled for Fall 2003.  Drama 170 was offered in Spring 2004 but cancelled due to no enrollment (described further below).  No classes were offered until Spring 2005 when History 151 was held with enrollment of 6.  Philosophy 100 is scheduled for Summer 2005.  In Fall 2005, HawCC will be offering History and Speech-Communications courses.


Training Group.  In an effort to address the needs of the "Training Group" two initiatives were undertaken: 1) training for certified nurse assistants, and 2) training for education assistants. Training for certified nurse assistants (CNA) was the first area in which there was expressed community need and interest.  CNA training was previously offered in the community by a local Registered Nurse (RN).  However, the administrative responsibilities for the program in addition to teaching responsibilities became too difficult to manage for the instructor and the training program was discontinued.  There was and continues to be a need for CNAs in the North Hawaii region.  Through a partnership between HCC, the RN who previously taught the CNA training program, and Hale Ho’ola Hamakua, a CNA training program was offered by HCC in Honokaa (a town in North Hawaii) in April 2003.  The State of Hawaii Workforce Development Division (WDD) Office recruited students for the CNA training.  Ten individuals enrolled in and completed the CNA training program on June 16, 2003.  The CNA training program ran for 10 weeks and cost $1500 to attend.  Nine of the 10 students who enrolled obtained financial assistance through the WDD Office to cover the cost of their training.  Another CNA training program was planned for September 2003 but was cancelled due to low enrollment.  Interest continues to be expressed for CNA training and recruitment for another training program is currently underway. 


Training for Educational Assistants (EA) and other paraprofessionals (PP) working in the public schools was the second area in which there was expressed community need and interest.  The EAs and PPs must meet the training and educational requirements of the “No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act" signed into law by President Bush on January 8, 2002.  Several options are available to EAs and PPs.  These options include the following:

    1.    obtaining 48 credits from a regionally accredited institution of higher education recognized by the Hawaii Department of Education (HDOE);

    2.    obtain an Associate of Arts or Science degree (or higher) from a regionally accredited institution recognized by the HDOE;

    3.    satisfactory completion of the Educational Assistant Training Program (provided free of charge

            by the HDOE) includes completion of the Practicum Component plus one of the following:

            a) successful completion of developmental programs in reading, writing, and math (provided

                 free of charge by the HDOE), b) earn nine college credits from an accredited institution at the

                100 level or higher with a combination of English and math courses, or c) successfully pass

                a statewide assessment; satisfactory completion of the Educational Assistant Foundation Courses

                (provided through local community colleges) including the practicum component plus one of the

                three options listed in Option #3 (a, b, c); or

    4.    successfully pass the statewide assessment (No Child Left Behind, 2003).  


In an effort to assist EAs in meeting the requirements of Option #1 or #2, a web-based course, Drama 170 (Introduction to Drama) was offered by UHH.  This course was offered for several reasons.  First, it would count toward the 48-credit option.  Second, it would apply to the general education requirements of HCC (for an Associate degree) and UHH (for a Bachelor degree).  Third, an instructor was available and interested in teaching the course.  In order to assist students in taking the on-line course and to increase their comfort level and proficiency with distance learning (which would further increase their higher education options) three “How To Take An On-line Course” sessions were scheduled.  The course instructor and I planned and facilitated the “how-to” sessions which were offered free of charge, served as the introduction to the Drama 170 course, and were publicized to the EAs and PPs through the administrators in the local public schools.  The sessions were scheduled in the internet-equipped computer rooms of two of the public schools and in the WDD office adjacent to one school.  One session was canceled because of a conflicting community activity that involved the individuals for who the sessions were targeted.  The two other sessions were offered but did not draw any participants. 


Programming Successes and Failures


The enrollment for the courses offered during the first three consecutive terms, and the success of the CNA training were encouraging.  However the challenges with scheduling and filling courses during subsequent terms are disappointing.  An analysis of these successes and failures suggest that there are several factors that influence whether or not individuals will enroll in a course or certification/training program.  These include 1) collaboration and partnerships with the target group, 2) recruitment efforts, 3) financial considerations (e.g. money available to individuals to spend on higher education, cost of the class or training program, 4) time considerations (i.e. time available to individuals to spend on higher education, time period class is offered, how long they must attend), 5) motivation individuals have to enroll in a course or training program, and 6) academic proficiency needed to meet course or program requirements such as English, Writing, and Math.


The CNA training program 1) was developed through the collaborative efforts and a partnership arrangement between the HCC, Hale Hoola Hamakua, and WDD; 2) included an organized recruitment effort conducted by WDD, 3) was offered by HCC, had a set program cost ($1500), and 9 of the 10 students obtained financial assistance through WDD to cover the cost of the training, 4) was offered for a limited and set period of time (10-weeks), 5) translated into immediate employment for individuals in either institutional or home-based health care settings, and 6) provided training at the entry level for individuals interested in nursing careers.  After completing the CNA training, individuals who are motivated and meet academic proficiency requirements, may advance to an AA then BA degree program and higher degrees if they so desire. 


In contrast, the Drama 170 course that was offered for the EAs and PPs 1) was initiated by UHH; 2) had a weak recruitment effort; 3) was offered by UHH, cost $400 for a 3-credit course, and financial assistance was not readily available; 4) required a 16-week commitment; 5) was not specifically stated as a required course for any of the HDOE training options for EAs or PPs; and 6) required college-level proficiency in English in addition to requiring computer and internet proficiency.  Individuals may not have seen a direct connection between the Drama 170 class and their training and educational needs.  Those who were interested in pursuing an AA or BA degree may not have known that Drama 170 would satisfy a general education requirement that would apply to their degree program.  Unless the individual was already enrolled with HCC or UHH, he would not have knowledge of "general education requirements” or that Drama 170 would apply toward meeting one of the general education requirements.  Many individuals may have looked at the Drama course and said “Drama, I’m not interested in Drama.  I don’t teach Drama.  I teach Math”.  For those EAs who were not interested in pursuing college credits but preferred instead to meet one of the other EA requirements, the Drama 170 course served no purpose and did not meet their needs.  In light of partnership, recruitment, money, time, motivation, and academic proficiency considerations, it is understandable that the CNA training program would be successful and that an individual course offering for EAs and PPs like Drama 170 would not.


The different enrollment counts for the courses offered for the "Degree Group" can also be examined within the context of partnership, recruitment, financial, time, motivation, and academic proficiency considerations.  The motivation, and academic proficiency requirements were probably similar for all courses so do not appear to have impacted the enrollments.  However, collaboration, recruitment, financial and time considerations were different for each term.  There was a considerably stronger partnership and collaborative effort for the first three terms than for other terms.  In particular, more time and energy went into working with the high school counselors to recruit high school students for course.  The cost of the UHH courses were the same for each term.  Some students were able to receive financial assistance for the Summer 2002.  However, even when financial assistance was available for other terms we were not able to recruit a sufficient number of students for the courses.  Therefore, cost may be a consideration but a determinant in student enrollment.


This led us to our next consideration - time commitments for classes.  For adult students, time demands due to workloads and family responsibilities may be more demanding and hectic during the academic year as compared to during the summer months.  For high school students, time demands due to class work and school activities may be greater during the academic year than during the Summer.  As a result, we thought we anticipated higher enrollment during the Summer term than in the Fall and Spring terms, given a strong recruitment effort and the availability of financial assistance.  However, recent feedback from high school students indicate they would prefer taking college courses during the day, such as during the last period of their high school day or as an early-release option, rather than taking classes at night or during the Summer.


Lessons Learned and Future Direction


Based on our initial efforts to expand higher education opportunities in rural communities on the Island of Hawaii, we have learned some important lessons related to 1) course scheduling, 2) program management, 3) collaboration between a University and Community college, and 4) other factors at the system, family, and individual levels that impact higher education aspirations and decisions.


Course Scheduling and Enrollment


Course scheduling in rural communities must consider: 1) collaboration with target group members, 2) recruitment efforts, 3) tuition costs and availability of financial assistance, 4) time requirements, 5) motivation of target group members, and 6) academic proficiency required for the courses.   


First, the planning stage of a new training program or course offering should include collaboration and partnerships between those providing the training or course and those for who the training or course is being offered.  The involvement and buy-in of members of the target group is necessary and essential.  It may not be possible to use a "one-course-fits-all" approach but rather an more "tailored" approach may be necessary to fit the unique needs of each target group.


Second, recruitment efforts should be directed toward the specific individuals for whom the course or training program is targeted.  Students should be recruited from the local high schools and the broader community.  New educational and training initiatives must be well publicized and advertised in rural communities in order to inform residents of new educational opportunities and to recruit participants.  Recruitment efforts need to provide general information regarding application and registration procedures for courses in addition to providing general information about degree programs offered.


Third, courses should be offered at the lowest costs possible and financial assistance should be made available to students.  Limited financial resources are often barriers to individuals pursuing higher education.  Individuals with little or no money available to them to spend on their education and training will likely seek out opportunities that are free of charge or for which financial assistance is available.  The application process and timetable for securing financial assistance must be taken into consideration when planning publicity and recruitment campaigns.  Since tuition costs for the community college are considerably lower than the tuition costs for the university, courses offered through the community college may be preferred if scheduled at the same time as university courses.  Scholarships may be necessary to recruit students to higher priced university courses.


Fourth, the day and time during which training sessions and courses are offered should be scheduled to meet the unique needs of the target group.  The times when people are available to take classes may be very different for high school students, working adults, and non-working adults.  Training sessions and course offerings should be scheduled during times most appropriate for the target group.


Fifth, planning efforts should consider the motivation an individual has for pursuing higher education and training opportunities.  The person may be motivated to enroll in a training program or course for various reasons: 1) an employer may require the course or training and therefore the individual must enroll and successfully complete the course in order to keep their job (e.g. EAs); 2) the training program or course may help the person qualify for and get a specific job for which employment opportunities are available in their area (e.g. CNA); or 3) the individual may want to participate in a training program or pursue a college degree because it will make them eligible for promotion or new job opportunities (e.g. AA or BA degree).  On the other hand, an individual may not have any aspirations or motivation for higher education for reasons discussed earlier.


Sixth, planning efforts should consider academic proficiency of the target group. Most colleges and universities require students to take placement examinations in Math and English.  Individuals who are placed at the English 100 and Math 100 levels are considered to be college-ready, proficient in these areas, and capable of meeting the demands of future coursework.  Students who place below the English 100 and Math 100 levels must take preparatory courses to improve their skills prior to advancing to the 100-level courses. Placements testing and preparatory classes in Math, English, and computer/internet skills (for on-line courses) may be needed in rural communities to help ensure student success in community college and university classes.


Program Management


It has been difficult to manage programming for the NHERC without staffing.  Currently programming is being "managed" by several different individuals, each with their own set of full-time responsibilities in other areas.  In addition to the challenges described above related to the scheduling of classes and recruitment of students, the process for recruiting faculty to teach NHERC courses has been less than adequate. Fortunately funding was secured to fund personnel for the Center to sustain its activities and the hiring process is underway.  It is envisioned that the NHERC Planning Group will maintain an advisory role to the Center staff in guiding and supporting the Center's activities.


Collaboration between University and Community College


The NHERC was envisioned and continues to be developed as a joint effort of the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) and the Hawaii Community College (HawCC).  Nonetheless, the roles and responsibilities of each remain blurred.  UHH has taken the lead in course scheduling, administrative matters, and securing resources.  However, HawCC is currently taking a more active part in offering its courses to the North Hawaii community.  In light of the fact that they can provide many of the introductory college-level courses at a significantly lower cost than can UHH, HawCC courses may be more attractive to students.  In addition, HawCC currently has several courses being offered via distance learning technology (e.g. WebCT, VidCon).  The NHERC can serve a vital role as the "access point" to higher education in the region by providing information to the community regarding admissions and registration, coordinating course offerings of UHH and HawCC, and providing computer and internet access to those in the community who otherwise do not have such access.  In addition, the NHERC can provide onsite support to those needing assistance with distance learning technology.


Other Issues


As we make progress at the community level by establishing a center for higher education in a rural Hawaii community, we must also be aware of the need to address challenges and barriers to higher education at the system/organizational, family, and individual levels.  We need to work closely with the high schools in the community to ensure that all students are supported and encouraged to pursue higher education.  We need to work closely with employers in the region to identify training needs and areas for collaboration to provide training and higher education opportunities to the workforce.  We need to provide information to families about the range of higher education possibilities and financial assistance available to their children.  We need to provide remedial academic support to those who are not college-ready as well as providing support and encouragement to those who are college-ready but lack confidence about their ability to succeed in college.




The establishment of the NHERC is an excellent venue for expanding and increasing access to higher education in the rural communities of North Hawaii.  By offering courses and training programs in a rural setting, the NHERC is able to bridge the gap between formal educational institutions and residents of smaller and isolated communities. The lessons we have learned will help guide future programming and operations of the Center.  In addition, the NHERC experience provides a valuable model for others working to expand higher education opportunities in rural communities.




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Kenny, M.E., Blustein, D.L., Chaves, A., Grossman, J.M., & Gallager, L.A. (2003).  The role of perceived barriers and relational support in the education and vocational lives of urban high school students.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50, 42-155.


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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Paraprofessional Requirements Pamphlet, Department of Education, State of Hawaii, Office of Human Resources, Recruitment and Retention Support Center, Education Assistant Training Program, April 2003


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