Only 15 pct. of SHEFA graduates return home


Only 15 percent of students who finished college with the help of the Saipan Higher Education Financial Assistance program have returned to the island after graduating, in blatant violation of SHEFA regulations.

That low return rate of graduates who used SHEFA remains one of the challenges the program faces, said SHEFA board member Raymond Muña, speaking at the Saipan Chamber of Commerce meeting yesterday at the Pacific Islands Club

“There are a lot of factors why they don’t return home. You could look at the competitive wages…in the [United S]tates compared to here,” he said.

Gloria Cavanagh isn’t surprised.

“We must remember we did not have an economy prior to a few years ago. It was difficult to offer competitive wages. …Additionally, as mentioned, many of our recipients become accustomed to the services that are readily available in the mainland versus home,” said Cavanagh, who chairs the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands.

She is, however, optimistic that the CNMI economy would continue its upward trajectory and entice more SHEFA graduates to return home and contribute to the local economy.

Chamber president Velma Palacios said she is a bit stunned at the low return rate of SHEFA recipients. 

“We as a community should work together to find ways to encourage our SHEFA and CNMI Scholarship recipients to come back to the CNMI and be part of the workforce. We need everyone’s talent and expertise,” she told Saipan Tribune.

Businessman James Arenovski said that having 15 percent of SHEFA graduates returning is still a positive thing.

“Of course it would be nice to see this percentage increase. I think there are a lot of kids who find good work and stay in the [United S]tates. SHEFA is notable and is important to help CNMI students seek a better education. We should understand that many will not return for various reasons,” he said.

SHEFA provides financial assistance to qualified residents of Saipan and the Northern Islands who are pursuing postsecondary education.

SHEFA wants half to return

Muña, who chairs SHEFA’s Program and Development Committee and himself a SHEFA scholar, said that one of SHEFA’s goals is to raise the return rate of SHEFA graduates to 50 percent or higher.

“We want our folks to return home and make this place a better place. We are trying to explore several options to help our students, who for whatever reason, just can’t return or have a hard time paying that back,” he said.

Under SHEFA rules, scholars would have to return home and work on Saipan the same number of years they took advantage of the program’s scholarship. For instance, if a student used SHEFA for all four years of his bachelor’s degree, then he would need to work on Saipan for four years as well.

Students who fail to come home and work would have to reimburse SHEFA for the scholarships money they used in earning their education.

Muña said one option SHEFA is looking at is establishing a forgiveness program. He, however, clarified that it’s more of a way to defer paying back the scholarship money owed SHEFA.

He said the business community could also help returning SHEFA graduates by offering higher salaries and signing bonuses.

“One way to help or assist is by providing competitive wages. The CNMI government and some private businesses offer competitive wages. The Public School System, for example, has increased the wages of its instructors and is now competitive with the U.S.,” said Muña.

On-island job fairs like the ones organized by the Public School System have also worked in the past.

“Quite honestly, personally from my own experience, when you’re out in the [United S]tates, you get more comfortable in the surroundings. It’s difficult to come back home, despite calling Saipan home. Maybe not now, but in the years past, the opportunities just weren’t here,” he added.

A perfect example, Muña said, is his own sister. “…she graduated with her degree in business and she came back home and did her thing and went back to the [United S]tates because there were better opportunities for her [there]. The bottom line is, if there are more opportunities here, like now the economy is booming, then I want to say that our people will come back home,” he said.

As for as SHEFA getting back the money from SHEFA graduates who didn’t return, Muña admitted that forcing them to pay back the obligation is very difficult.

“It’s really difficult to track students who go off-island and have an obligation to return. Some may have had a change of address or changed their number,” he said.

Muña said reporting them to collection agencies and even attacking their credit score is also difficult and requires extra investment on SHEFA’s part.

“It’s an ongoing problem that we’re trying to solve and we’re trying to come up with creative ways to solve it,” he said.

Arenovski said that SHEFA should provide more incentives and rewards for those who return to Saipan. He also suggested punitive options for those who don’t return home.

“Maybe we should not pay up front and pay a lump sum to the school or lending agent when the graduate returns [and] wiping out a portion of their school debt. We can also have the student’s parents ‘co-sign’ and if the graduate does not return to Saipan, we could collect from them and their assets,” he said.

SHEFA provides anywhere from $800 to $9,000 in financial assistance per semester for every student enrolled in vocational, associates, bachelors, or any advanced degrees.

Mark Rabago | Associate Editor
Mark Rabago is the Associate Editor of Saipan Tribune. Contact him at

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