One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican students advocating to preserve college access

One year after Hurricane Maria, college students from Puerto Rico are still facing significant disruption. On the island, many schools and universities are closed or offering limited access to basic amenities, with roofs, water, wifi, and electricity still in states of disrepair.

Efforts to increase access to mainland schools

Off the island, students are faring better, thanks to the generosity of mainland campuses. WUNC reports that “dozens of private schools, and state college and university systems in Florida, New York, and Connecticut gave tuition breaks to Puerto Rican students.” Some demographers, however, predict that the mass exodus of students in the wake of Hurricane Maria could cause brain drain for the island.

As some tuition discounts expire, many Puerto Rican college students are torn between staying on the mainland and working to make ends meet, far from their friends and family, or returning home to help the island recover, continuing their education in the midst of repairs. WUNC highlights the relative expense of mainland education, sharing the story of a Puerto Rican student who—even with free room, board, books, and a 50 percent discount on tuition at St. Thomas University in Florida—still “expects to pay twice as much for school in Florida as he would in Puerto Rico,” and must work up to 60 hours a week to make his payments.

Funding limitations, restructuring efforts prompt unrest among Puerto Rican families

A video released by Education Week notes that Puerto Rico’s educational system was already fragile prior to the hurricane, given federal funding caps and a steady loss of students. Each year for the past decade, roughly 20,000 students have left the Puerto Rican school system; the student exodus after Hurricane Maria at minimum doubled that number.

Faced with a glut of schools in disrepair and a dearth of students to fill them, Puerto Rican officials have announced plans to close hundreds of public K-12 schools, move teachers, and consolidate classrooms. These changes follow major funding cuts from earlier this year: in an attempt to restructure Puerto Rico’s massive and longstanding debt, a fiscal-control board called La Junta set up a legislative plan called La Promesa that is now impacting the University of Puerto Rico and its tuition. Teen Vogue reports that “in April, a plan was approved that could cut government contributions to the University of Puerto Rico and individual municipalities by $451 million dollars a year.” In turn, “the university agreed to raise tuition to more than double the average cost per credit for every student.”

“Closing these campuses will be like losing five or six CUNY or SUNY colleges,” says Professor Maritza Stanchich of University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Puerto Rico has no community college system, but the University of Puerto Rico’s 11 campuses span into remote areas of the island. “These universities are the only major social vehicle on the whole island,” Stanchich says, adding “it is our only place for critical thinking.”

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