Puerto Rico's Public University System Is in Disarray. But It's Not Just Because of Hurricane Maria.

"Most college students in the US are making plans for the summer. For some of the many Puerto Rican college students who came to the mainland to continue their studies after Hurricane Maria roared through the island last September, this time of the year brings a more complex question — whether to stay or go back home," Public Radio International reports.

"Leonardo Núñez, 19, started looking for schools on the US mainland that were accepting transfer students from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria. His school, the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, was closed for about 40 days after the hurricane. When it did reopen, few streetlights functioned, making it difficult to commute to campus. Once at school, there was no Wi-Fi connection.

'My apartment didn't have electrical power sometimes. It was really hard,' says Núñez. 'You know, to study in that environment, it's not easy.'

Núñez ended up at Bowdoin College, a small private school in Maine. They covered tuition, housing, meals, travel and books for one semester. Núñez marveled at how life as a student at Bowdoin differed from back home. He doesn't have to cook or do dishes. He can concentrate on his studies.

'My brother mentioned that this is like the ideal vacation for me because I really like studying and here, I got everything,' says Núñez. 'They hand you everything on, like, golden trays. All the food, all the commodities of being here, all the resources.'

But at the end of May, Núñez packed up his bags and went home. What awaits him there is a university system in even more dire condition than when he left it in January.

Almost nine months after the hurricane, many parts of Puerto Rico's economy, infrastructure and society remain unstable. Higher education hasn't been spared, creating uncertainty for many students enrolled at each of the 11 campuses that are part of the island's public university system, the University of Puerto Rico. Some of the problems at the university predate Hurricane Maria. There were frequent strikes and budget cuts. But the structural damages from the hurricane has exacerbated conditions and will cost the university more than $132 million to fix.

Since Maria, a fiscal board overseeing the island's economy has decided to double the cost of tuition and decrease the university's budget even further to make up for some of the expenses of the recovery and to counter the country's debt. This new landscape for public higher education gives young Puerto Ricans, both in the US and on the island, a lot to consider when they go back to school in the fall.

Public institutions, including the University of Puerto Rico, have seen their budgets and services cut since the beginning of the country's financial crisis in 2015. The US government-appointed fiscal board took control over the country's finances a year later. The university was slated for a $201 million budget cut.

Hurricane Maria only accelerated what was already happening. To make up for lost revenue, the university is now increasing the price of tuition. Each college credit will be nearly twice as expensive by the start of the fall semester 2018 — from $57 to $115 per credit. Meanwhile, federal and local government contributions will shrink."

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Publication Date: 6/13/2018

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