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Puerto Rican universities adapted through crises, offering lessons, a new report finds

Their efforts may provide solutions to U.S. colleges facing enrollment shifts and financial constraints, according to the think tank Excelencia in Education.
University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.
The University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.Dora Ramirez / Shutterstock

Adapting courses and offerings, changing admissions and enrollment criteria and establishing satellite campuses on the U.S. mainland helped universities in Puerto Rico prevail despite a financial crisis, natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to research published Tuesday.

A new report by Excelencia in Education, a think tank focused on Latino college completion, focused on how five higher education institutions in the U.S. territory — three public universities and two private nonprofit institutions — grappled with declining student enrollment, as well as difficulties retaining and graduating students, while enduring fiscal and budget constraints, among other challenges.

Higher education institutions in Puerto Rico have faced the compounding impacts of multiple challenges over the past several years.

In 2016, Puerto Rico embarked on a bankruptcy-like process under the Obama-era Promesa law, which created the federal fiscal board that is responsible for restructuring the island’s $72 billion public debt. It has resulted in tough austerity measures, including budget cuts for Puerto Rico’s public university system.

The precarious financial situation became more complicated by devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, as well as a series of destructive earthquakes early in 2020, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The events contributed to the outmigration of hundreds of thousands of young Puerto Rican people, creating an increasingly older residential population.

The factors have combined to force colleges and universities on the island to find ways to adapt.

To battle declining enrollment, some institutions expanded and revised their program offerings. Others established satellite campuses or programs on the mainland to serve the Puerto Rican diaspora and the broader Latino community. Some colleges even modified their admissions criteria to reflect the challenges of the pandemic, according to the report. They also hosted open houses, engaged with their surrounding communities and increased their social media presences to engage with parents and students. 

“While these challenges are not new or unique to Puerto Rico, their intersection during a short period has required commitment and tenacity from these universities and their students,” Excelencia’s CEO, Deborah Santiago, a co-author of the new report, said in a statement.

“Considering the leadership of Puerto Rican HSIs in creating a ‘new normal’ to serve their students equips all institutions with effective strategies,” she said, using the initialism for “Hispanic-serving institutions,” as the Education Department calls such schools.

Studying colleges and universities in Puerto Rico could provide a unique glimpse into how higher education institutions in the U.S. could better serve Latino students in the face of enrollment inconsistencies, demographic shifts and financial constraints, Santiago said. That is particularly significant because Puerto Rico has the third-largest number of Hispanic-serving institutions in the U.S.

The Education Department defines Hispanic-serving institutions as schools whose enrollments are at least 25% full-time Latino undergraduate students. Unlike most such institutions, schools in Puerto Rico have enrollments that are over 90% Latino.  

Recruiting adult learners, offering wraparound services

Puerto Rican colleges and universities that attributed declines in enrollments to a decrease in college-age students have focused their recruitment efforts on adult learners.

The patterns that have contributed to declining enrollment have also caused student retention and graduation rates to fluctuate. Researchers found that "supporting students by meeting their basic needs and providing wraparound services" was crucial.

Some institutions, for example, provided access to meals and additional financial support, as well as mental health services and counseling throughout their students’ trajectory, the report said.

Another challenge colleges and universities identified is that students who graduate are choosing to leave Puerto Rico to pursue work on the mainland or in other countries in Latin America, posing additional challenges for Puerto Rico’s economy and its declining workforce, the report found.

That has led institutions to become more intentional about connecting their graduating students to Puerto Rico’s workforce through "dedicated career development opportunities for students, internship experiences, job fairs, and opportunities to engage in research and continue their education at the graduate level," according to the report.

From public education budget cuts to tuition revenue reductions, fiscal and budgetary challenges are putting the longevity of such institutions at risk.

The grim reality has forced university and college leaders to make staffing changes, consolidate their student services and academic programs, streamline degree requirements and seek external funding, according to the report.

Further research will be needed to determine the long-term institutional sustainability of such colleges and universities and whether they can maximize their status as Hispanic-serving institutions with access to certain federal grants, Santiago concluded in the report.