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University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. Photo credit: Frank E. Dalmau Photography / GettyImages.

Institutional resilience in Puerto Rico

Read about Excelencia in Education newest study about the efforts done by Puerto Rican HSIs in the past turbulent years.

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When considering Latinos in the United States, Puerto Ricans represent the second largest group in the community — only behind Mexicans.

Worried about giving visibility to this population that is often forgotten in studies — even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and their institutions are part of the U.S. economy — Excelencia in Education shared a brief , "Institutional Resilience in Puerto Rico: A First Look at Efforts by Puerto Rican HSIs", about the efforts in the resilience of educational institutions in the island throughout difficult times. 

Over the past five years, Puerto Rico has faced fiscal and economic disruptions, demographic shifts, hurricanes and earthquakes, governance challenges, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although these challenges are not exclusive or new to the island, their intersection in such a short period of time required commitment, flexibility, innovation, and adjustments. 

Excelencia interviewed five Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and identified essential efforts demonstrating their resilience in sustaining institutional management, managing enrollment plans and expectations, supporting students by meeting their basic needs, providing wraparound services, and preparing students for graduation and post-completion. 

Challenges in the last five years 

Being located in a region with earthquake and hurricane tendencies, Puerto Rican institutions in recent years have faced the negative impacts of these natural disasters on their physical infrastructure, resource availability, and service priorities. The island experienced intense and destructive hurricanes in 2017 and high-magnitude earthquakes since 2019 — which severely impacted the lives of Puerto Rican residents. Adding to the infrastructure challenges caused by natural causes is the fiscal austerity in Puerto Rico due to the financial crisis. According to the brief, by the fiscal year 2021, appropriations for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) — the public university system — were 40% lower than in 2017, a decrease of $333 million. Governance and leadership during these moments of crisis have also created tensions and social protest demonstrations — as they have failed to address the citizens’ needs. Political instability affects higher education as university leadership is often associated with political affiliation and electoral swigs. 

The demographic shift in the island also has an impact on the higher education system. The population in Puerto Rico has not only been declining but getting older. The out-migration of young and working-age occupants to the mainland and the decline in birth rate are the main contributors to this shift that has impacted the pool of college applicants. 

On top of all that, it is impossible not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected the entire world since 2020. In the case of Puerto Rico, it adds to all the other difficulties the citizens were already facing. Specifically for higher education, there were limits to infrastructure investment regarding distance learning since the modality more common was in-person. 

The universities

Excelencia reviewed institutions in order to get a greater understanding of their efforts in resilience to address the challenging circumstances in Puerto Rico. Five institutions volunteered to participate in several interviews to share information about themselves and their student’s experiences throughout the past five years. The institutions are: 

  • Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Arecibo;
  • Universidad Ana G. Méndez-Gurabo;
  • University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez;
  • University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras;
  • University of Puerto Rico-Utuado; 

According to the brief, in 2020-21, there were 80 institutions in Puerto Rico — with around 183,000 students enrolled. Of these, 70% are in the private sector, and 30% are in the public sector — over half of the institutions in Puerto Rico are private, nonprofit four-year institutions.

The large public system, the UPR system, has 11 campuses and enrolled the majority of students in public institutions  — about 50,000. 

Efforts to resist

Providing a five-year overview of the data on fall enrollment, retention, faculty, degree completion, revenues and expenditures, and cost of attendance and financial aid for each institution; Excelencia identified the approaches taken by the universities to stay open in the long-term.  

Read below the challenges faced and how institutions managed to address the issues: 

  • Decline in enrollment: increase in intentional recruitment efforts. Universities expanded or revised their program offerings, established satellite campuses and programs on the mainland, and modified their admission criteria to reflect the challenges of the pandemic.
  • Retaining and graduating students: addressing basic needs, providing support services, and improving the quality of education. Drop and fluctuation of retention rates happened in some of the institutions due to the crisis happening on the island and during the pandemic — which changed the way students learn and perceive education. By providing access to groceries and meals through food pantries, additional financial resources and emergency aid to students in high need, and access to mental health services whether in-person or through virtual platforms; the institutions understood what students needed the most and tackled it. 
  • Connecting graduates to Puerto Rico’s workforce: providing career services and support to prepare students for the labor pool and graduate education. Graduate students were choosing to leave the island to work on the mainland and in other countries — adding to the migration and economic crisis. The creation of centers dedicated to preparing students for the workforce and providing them with career development opportunities to engage with local employers through job fairs and networking events increased the connections between the students and Puerto Rican companies. 
  • Fiscal and budgetary constraints: academic and administrative restructuring. While public institutions have faced budget cuts, private ones have had reduced revenue to cover expenses due to tuition dependency. Centralizing student services offices (instead of spreading them across different campuses) and revising academic curricula were some of restructuring initiatives needed.  
  • Decline in college-age student population: pivoting recruitment efforts to focus on adult learners and expanding to the mainland. The decline in enrollment is also caused by the decrease in college-age students — caused by the out-migration of young adults and the aging population. Strategies to address the changing student demographic included specific courses aiming to attract adults and programs offered to students on the mainland — to serve Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. 
  • Persisting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: adapting to sustain educational quality. Challenges in adapting to qualified virtual learning education options made the institutions implement faculty training workshops, improve technological equipment, and provide spaces with internet access to students.   

To read more about the specific efforts and challenges of each university, click here

Student voices

Excelencia interviewed 17 students — males and females from varied majors and years — from private and public institutions in Puerto Rico to understand how they experienced the past five years. 

The brief stated that, during group interviews, the students shared how they navigated their college options, how they paid for college, what types of support services their institution provided, and how the recent environmental and health challenges have impacted their college experience.

Proximity to home, the prestige of the institution, availability of academic programs, affordability, infrastructure quality, and the campus climate were described as the main factors for students when choosing a college. Due to the lack of on-campus housing in many Puerto Rican colleges and universities, students considered proximity to home as a determinant factor since public transportation is limited and inconsistent. 

Paying for college is another concern when students are choosing where to go. The majority of the students in the interviews rely on the Pell grant, scholarships, and grant aids — as well as many other Puerto Ricans that are low-income. 

Once in school, students valued the support services they receive towards mental health, academic success, and career advancement. They were described as the most prominent and beneficial in their college trajectory so far — faculty support, with professors that genuinely care for their students’ academic progress and overall well-being, was also included. 

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented difficulties never imagined before. Students faced challenges in transitioning to online learning, with an emphasis on the changing dynamic of their studying and college experience relative to in-person learning. 

Although feeling stressed and overwhelmed when trying to adapt to the new model, students valued their institution’s response in providing emergency funds, establishing safety protocols, and training faculty to respond to students’ needs. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill — was described as essential for students. 

The complete publication, as well as informative infographics, is available on Excelencia’s website

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