With its abundance of sandy beaches and warm tropical climate, you wouldn’t expect that it would be difficult to persuade students to study in Hawaii.
But it is precisely this image that has blocked droves of international students from attending a university in the US state, according to Joel Weaver, president of the Study Hawaii Educational Consortium, an organisation of 28 public and private schools, colleges and universities aimed at promoting the state as a study destination.
“The biggest barrier preventing students from applying to our institutions is that Hawaii has been known for so long as a leisure destination,” he said.
“In a sense, the curse of our jaw-dropping geography, year-round great weather, and laid-back lifestyle is that people are so star-struck by the natural beauty that they don’t see the world-class research and study opportunities we have available.”
John Gotanda, president of Hawaii Pacific University, a private institution located in the heart of Honolulu’s business district, agrees: “There might be a misconception that Hawaii is simply a premier vacation destination, preventing some international students from coming to Hawaii to study.”
But a new campaign hopes to change that. Last month the Study Hawaii Educational Consortium unveiled a new 10-year strategic plan, which has the primary goal of doubling the annual international student enrolment in Hawaii to 24,000 by 2026. It predicts that this growth would bring a total annual revenue of $1 billion (£742 million) to the state over the ensuing decade.
The target relates to international student numbers across all levels of education, but several countries across Asia have been highlighted as priority markets for degree-seeking students, while Brazil, Norway and Germany are the main targets for short-term and certificate programmes.
Overseas student numbers in Hawaii currently vary widely by institution.
According to Times Higher Education World University Rankings data, 13 per cent of students at the state’s most prestigious institution, the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, come from outside the US.
But at the University of Hawai’i at West O’ahu, 97 per cent of students come from within the state and just 0.4 per cent – or a mere 12 students – are international, according to its website.
Mr Weaver believes that Hawaii can use its unique location “at the crossroads of east and west in the ‘Pacific century’” to increase these numbers.
“The Hawaiian islands are the most remote geographical features in the world, and our deep marine surroundings, volcanic geology, and varied climates host some of the most exotic flora and fauna found anywhere,” he said, adding that this makes the state’s “outdoor research and learning opportunities without equal” in several areas of science.
Hawaii’s geographical and cultural separation from the rest of the US also means that it may not suffer the same declines in overseas student enrolment as its fellow states. A recent study from the Institute of International Education found that the number of new international students enrolling in US universities declined by 7 per cent in the past year, following the election of Donald Trump as president.
“As the most multi-ethnic state in the US, Hawaii has been majority minority for decades, with no one ethnic group making up more than half the population,” Mr Weaver said.
Professor Gotanda agrees that this is one of Hawaii’s main benefits.
“The multicultural and multilingual environment of Honolulu – a global city – provides distinct advantages for students living in Hawaii and learning at HPU,” he said.