SANTA ROSA (KPIX) – While some students are postponing college admissions because of COVID-19, one university is seeing an increase in enrollment.

Hawaii Pacific University is offering incoming freshmen from the Golden State a golden opportunity to have in-person classes, as well as a grant to make out-of-state tuition more affordable.

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From their Santa Rosa home, Christine Wong and her mom Erika, count the weeks until the El Molino High School graduate leaves for college.

“They had this huge aloha and welcoming spirit,” Christine recalled.

She will study biology and join the acro and tumbling team at Hawaii Pacific, a private university of 4,000, in downtown Honolulu . 

“California really adds to our diversity,” said University President John Gotanda.

Students enroll from all over the world and nation, but one in four arrives from California. This year, Hawaii Pacific is stepping up recruitment from its largest feeder state to keep enrollment from lagging.

While California public universities have already announced most fall classes will be online due to COVID-19, Gotanda offers an alternative. 

“We are fully prepared to welcome back students for an in-person experience in the Fall,” Gotanda said. 

Gotanda said that applications from California soared 70 percent over last year.

Los Altos High School graduate Kayla Arellano will join the freshman class of more than 500.

“I feel really, really blessed that I will be attending in-person,” Arellano said.

She has not even set foot on the waterfront campus and only taken tours online. Arellano said she liked HPU’s nursing program and overall package.
 
“Students are looking to Hawaii as one of the safest places on the planet to go to school,” Gotanda said.

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So far, California has had more than 140,000 COVID-19 cases and 5,000 deaths. Hawaii has had fewer than 700 cases and under 20 deaths, thanks in part to its mandatory 14-day quarantine for island arrivals.

“I knew that going to a place that’s isolated, I would have a less chance to getting COVID and knowing that I can continue my studies,” Arellano explained.

Christine’s mother, Erika Wong, added, “They can lock down the island so that they can knock it out much quicker than we can here.”

Add to that Hawaii Pacific’s 12-to-1 student to teacher ratio, and average class size of 17 students.

“Social distancing in our classrooms is not going to be a problem because we’re already small to begin with,” Gotanda explained.

But the families tell us the biggest selling point is the California Match.

For the first time, Hawaii Pacific is offering California freshmen the same tuition they would pay if they attended the University of California — just over $12,500. That is half of Hawaii Pacific’s usual rate.

“With the California Match Grant, Hawaii is actually cheaper than it would be going to a California school,” said Christine Wong.

Her mother, agrees.

“About $8,000 cheaper, which is the cost of housing and that made it affordable to be able to go over there,” she said.

And while Arellano and Wong are excited they made the right match during the pandemic, they and their families are now preparing for another potential sickness: those not-so-sunny moments of feeling an ocean apart.

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“Thanks to technology, I’m always a FaceTime away,” said Wong with a smile.