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The Urgency of Supporting the University of Puerto Rico

In an essay for Medium in November following Hurricane Maria, I asked, “How will we support higher education in Puerto Rico?” Two months after this natural disaster, the conditions in Puerto Rico were grim, with U.S. relief efforts seeming haphazard as the island struggled to get power restored.

Before the hurricane caused havoc on the island, Puerto Rico’s main public university system, the University of Puerto Rico, was already in a precarious situation. Due to the massive debt the island had accrued, and poor legislation and fiscal control, students at UPR had been striking periodically to protest the proposed $450-million budget cut the university system faced.

Students organized demonstrations and strikes to urge the government to reconsider the budget cuts, and to go through an audit of the nearly $70-billion debt owed to foreign investors. The students submitted a plan that could raise $500 million by taxing property that is idle or worth more than $1 million, considering that many of these properties are not owned by Puerto Ricans, especially those on the island.

Protests and strikes at the university are nothing new. Not long after it was founded in 1903, students began protesting the colonial relationship the island had with the U.S. and the increased military presence on campus, especially after the Jones Act granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, which came with the obligation to serve in the military if a draft were to occur. As ROTC programs were developed on the island, students grew more critical of the university and the island’s governance and how much control the U.S. had.

Over the last decade, student activism at UPR has focused primarily on resisting the privatization of the university and austerity measures taken by the government to recover from the island’s economic crisis that would lead to tuition hikes.

Encompassing 11 campuses and educating approximately 60,000 students, the UPR system is an affordable option for citizens of the island. More than 60 percent of the island’s residents live near the poverty line and another 30 percent living well below that line. How can the public flagship university of the island become inaccessible to the most vulnerable on the island?

The students and their families cannot afford tuition hikes. On average, as recently reported in Diverse, UPR’s main campus at Río Piedras costs approximately $2,300 annually, while the other most popular option for post-secondary education in Puerto Rico, the private Inter American University of Puerto Rico, costs nearly $7,600 a year.

Having temporarily lost Title IV funding – which the Pell grant and work study programs are housed under – because of the indefinite strike, along with threats of losing accreditation and not being able to finish the semester, and with no promises of less-severe budget cuts, students voted to end a nearly two-month strike.

A few months later, Hurricane Maria wrecked the island, causing millions of dollars in damage to the university system and leading to an abrupt pause of the fall semester. It took many institutions a month or longer to resume.

At one point before the hurricane, the administration proposed a plan to increase tuition based on family income. Half the students would not see an increase in their tuition while higher-earning families would see an increase, with 30 percent of students seeing their tuition double. The New York Times reported that many students were against the tuition increase because it would not improve their education, but instead pay for debt of the island.

Now, the board in control of UPR’s finances is finalizing a plan that would nearly double the amount a tuition credit would cost undergraduates. Although the fiscal board has funding available towards scholarships for low-income families, the $9 million in funding set aside is far below the $39 million the university suggested, raising questions about how the funds will be distributed. Along with the proposed cuts, the university system is consolidating campuses, cutting administrative costs and reconsidering academic offerings to reduce spending and increase revenue. This can have detrimental effects on academic areas that are not generating profit, but serve cultural purpose on the island.

The economic crisis in Puerto Rico is a humanitarian issue. Puerto Ricans on the island are American citizens. Yet, the struggles of the island and its education system are barely covered in the media. Beyond the severe implications this financial crisis has had on social services, employment and poverty on the island, the effect it is having on education paints a gloomy future for Puerto Rico.

How can its residents persist, thrive and help the island recover if we are not investing in improving its educational system rather than taxing students to pay for island debt? Would we allow budget cuts this severe to a state public university system?

Educating nearly 60,000 Hispanic students, with enrollment declining and many Puerto Ricans leaving the island due to the economic crisis, the question still remains: How are we supporting higher education in Puerto Rico?

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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