Currents

Talking Shop: Waiting on the Numbers

One year after Hurricane Maria, enrollment challenges linger for Puerto Rico’s colleges

By Julie Bourbon

LUIS MALDONADO

LUIS MALDONADO
Chief Advocacy Officer
Hispanic Association of
Colleges and Universities, Washington, D.C.

Puerto Rico native Luis Maldonado visited five months after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island Sept. 20, 2017, devastating infrastructure, contributing to thousands of deaths, and causing a massive exodus of residents. He was struck by how many traffic lights were still out and by how courteous drivers were to each other at intersections. "That never happened when the lights were working," he says. "Everybody knew they were in the same boat."

PHOTO CREDIT: MICHAEL J. LUTCH

Many HACU institutions were devastated by Hurricane Maria. What's been your role since then?

We approached the Appropriations Committees in Congress to give a voice to institutions when they were unable to communicate. We said, "Don't forget that Puerto Rico is part of the United States." They are entitled to financial and institutional aid, Title IV and Title V funds, because the institutions are 25 percent or more Hispanic enrollment.

What do you expect for the island's 63 colleges and universities this year?

We suspect some institutions will not reopen. The enrollment numbers will be key. Puerto Rico had been undergoing a brain drain the past 10 years, but nothing like this. Those who could afford to get out, got out. Most who left are college-educated professionals and older people with a place to shelter in the continental U.S. Working professionals who took their children with them, including college-age children, have not returned. A university's life is its students—we'll have to wait to know what those numbers are.

What are some unforeseen challenges?

One problem is the draining of cash reserves. Institutions bought as much fuel as possible to keep generators going for basic activities. Administrators realize they're spending all their cash and won't have the students in the future to bring back the dollars.

Another problem is the impact of insurance claims. How many institutions will not reopen because of these costs? If you don't have cash reserves, how will you absorb increases in insurance?

Also, almost all students qualify for Pell Grants and underuse federal work-study programs, preferring to find their own jobs to pay tuition. The notion of working on campus is not ingrained in Puerto Rico. But many service jobs disappeared because businesses couldn't reopen or owners left—another source of supplemental funding lost.

Then there's the damage to research labs and the researchers who have left. Research dollars impact those institutions and their students.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 provides $100 million in emergency aid to affected institutions and $75 million to those that enroll displaced students. You've been critical. Why?

Federal agencies are pretending to respond. Only 10 institutions have applied for displaced student aid. That's shocking. The Department of Education set a deadline of June 4, 2018, but is still accepting applications without updating the deadline. The department is failing in its responsibility to keep schools informed.

So we're left questioning, what is their motivation? We have been broadly targeting our members to get the word out that money is still available—the last thing we want is for funds to go unused and give the notion that the need has been addressed.

A closing word?

The original word for hurricane was hurakán, or "god of the storm," as spoken by the Taínos, native inhabitants of Puerto Rico and its neighboring islands. You've long been adapting Taíno words but didn't know it, including barbecue, hammock, and cannibal.

For more infromation on assisting institutions affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, visit hacu.net.