The concept of talanoa — intentional conversations or dialogue — exists across Pacific Island cultures. As high school seniors contemplate their plans for next year, there is an urgent need to have a talanoa about relying on athletic scholarships to afford college and exploring additional ways to support college-bound Pacific Islander students during COVID-19.
In this time of much uncertainty, the Hawaii Department of Education should designate a portion of its allotted $43 million CARES Act funds to implement virtual college-readiness programs across the islands. In particular, the HIDOE should ensure that there are enough high school counselors to work closely with students who are interested in college. According to the most recent 2014-2015 data from the American School Counselor Association, Hawaii’s student-to-counselor ratio is 293 to 1. Hundreds of students are relying on just one counselor.
College is a defining experience for many young adults, but some Pacific Islander students continue to face setbacks on their journey to higher education. In 2015, the USC Rossier School of Education highlighted that while 80% of Pacific Islander high school students aspired to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 45% enrolled in a four-year institution immediately after high school.
COVID-19 has made getting to college more challenging as families struggle financially and athletic scholarships are put on hold. The current moment presents an opportunity to employ federal funding to empower schools and better prepare Pacific Islander students for education after high school.
High school counselors arrive at a critical point for students who aim to attend college. The ASCA notes that counselors frequently assess both academic and social-emotional needs of students (in partnership with parents and teachers) to improve student well-being.
College sports offer students a pathway not just to higher education via scholarship but occasionally into professional leagues. Furthermore, Pacific Islanders have additional motivations to pursue athletics beyond entertainment and self-fulfillment purposes.
As a former educator serving predominately Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students from low-income areas, I worked with students who often shared their sports dreams with me. One student explained that his goal was to play for the NFL and eventually buy his mother a house large enough to fit their entire family.
This sentiment is not surprising considering that family is the foundation in many Pacific Island cultures. For example, the concept of Faa Samoa or “the Samoan way” places family in a primary position. In my student’s case, the desire to compete in top-level sports was attached to increasing upward mobility for his family.
When COVID-19 arrived in the islands, the Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association announced that all interscholastic athletic practices and competitions would be suspended to minimize the spread of the disease. That shutdown, of course, significantly decreases the potential for local athletes to be recruited, as college recruiters are forced to assess an individual’s athletic ability based on past years’ results rather than live performance.
With limited platforms to showcase current athletic talent not just in Hawaii but across the United States, college recruiters are pulling back on scholarships. The College Finance website indicates that college coaches now expect a larger number of walk-on athletes who can potentially earn an athletic scholarship later on. But the lack of scholarship funds upfront will disproportionally affect Pacific Islander students and others from financially disadvantaged communities who cannot afford to pay for college in advance.
As the pandemic rages on, it is still unclear how colleges and universities will respond to the needs of underrepresented students. As athletic opportunities narrow, students will need all the help they can get. Thus steps must be taken to bolster support for high school counselors to ensure that students are adequately advised as they pursue their college dreams.
Increased funding from the CARES Act will allow counselors to spend more time advising students on financial aid, personal statements and school-based and external scholarships.
Pacific Islanders and other vulnerable populations cannot be allowed to fall through the cracks. During such pressing times, we must continue to have talanoa about supporting our high school students. By prioritizing their future, we are prioritizing the future of our community.