By: Marcus J. Ramos Cintrón
“I am broke but the University of Puerto Rico is not far behind,” seems to summarize the predominant sentiment in the UPR and its student body. Both students and the University find themselves in a struggle to remain solvent. Students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are burdened by a stagnant economy, high living costs, and cuts on federal grants, making ends meet ever harder. As students strive to achieve their academic goals and meet social expectations they find themselves as the famous saying goes “haciendo de tripas corazones”, in other words making the best of it. This harsh reality is a reflection of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis which has had its effect on the University of Puerto Rico and its students.
According to official UPR-Mayagüez Campus documents, only 64 percent of UPR students receive Pell grant in comparison with 81 percent in private institutions. This meaning that a large population of the UPR student body comes from an underprivileged background that could be interpreted as little if any help from parents and a tight budget to cover college and daily life expenses. Why is this happening and how are we reacting to it?
In a stagnant local economy where most families can’t afford to pay or even subsidize their kid’s college education, changes in grants eligibility criteria making less students eligible and high living costs have contributed to the financial hardships many students face during their college careers.
This is happening because in the past two decades The United States federal education funding policy has been shifting from need-base grants such as Pell grants to student loans, state grants and private scholarships in order to relocate more financial responsibility on students and their families. In a political environment where cuts and austerity seem to be the protagonists of public policy we can only expect more cuts on need-based grants and more opportunities for student loans. We have already witnessed changes in the eligibility criteria for Pell grants which as lead to the reduction of the grant’s recipients.
An UPRM student said in an interview that she had two friends that had to dropout from college because they simply couldn’t afford it. One of them, a non-Pell grant recipient had to dropout because one of his parents lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to pay tuition and living expenses. Her other friend, a civil engineering mayor student, with recent changes in the Pell grant eligibility criteria lost her benefits and her family couldn’t cover the all the expenses.
These scenarios are not rare due to the economic hardships that most of us face in PR, a small reduction in income can mean a drastic austerity measures that lead to lifestyle changing decisions.
In various interviews in which students from different socioeconomic backgrounds were asked which measures they took to make ends meet, the main one came up as to be: hold back on luxuries and treats. Well, that that’s subjective. What could be cataloged as a luxury? For these students holding back meant from not eating outside to not using their car too much to save gas.
A senior biology student at UPRM, which is only 18-years-old by the way, explained how “sometimes I just go throughout the day and wait till I get home to make something to eat.” Seems to be that eating three meals a day is a luxury for some students. She covers her yearly expenses with the Pell grant and the Vocational Rehabilitation state grant. Occasionally her parents’ help her out with rent but for her that’s always a longshot. To ease financial hardship this student will be looking for a job next semester. She has desisted from taking student loans because she plans on enrolling in medical school and realizes she will need student loans to get by during graduate school.
Economic problems have been directly correlated to academic performance due to the negative effects that being broke could have on your emotional stability.
A study by Rong Chen, an Assistant Professor at Seton Hall University compiles various conclusions on the effects of federal educational funding policy changes from past decades to as recently as 2011 on the accessibility and efficiency of the country’s higher education.
Recent studies cited in Rong Chen’s compilation have shown that in 48 states where a higher educational funding policy grounded on need-based grants have been enacted, student’s degree completion rate increased. On the other hand shifting the financial responsibility to students in a country where the socioeconomic gap is ever larger has translated into less accessibility to higher education and higher rates of attrition in students. Chen’s compilation clearly makes apparent that policy changes that have lead to cuts in social programs have undermined the United States ability to insure accessible higher education for its citizens.
In Puerto Rico the UPR administrators and the country’s policy makers are very aware of the impact that future cuts of federal funds will have not only in financing higher education but also on the University’s capacity for research and development. In contrast with many public universities in the United States that have opted for raising tuition costs and promoting private scholarships to fund student’s expenses. In Puerto Rico the UPR is mainly funded by the local government and supplemented by tuition fees, donations, and local and federal grants. This puts the UPR in a tight spot, unable to rise tuitions too much because of the protests that would follow if they did, the UPR has been obliged to try to get more funds from central government and hold on to the federal funds it has by any means necessary.
A recent change in the UPR administration has brought with itself a spirit of reform that hopes to rescue the university from financial crisis and insure that the main public educational institution in Puerto Rico becomes more accessible and not less for future generations.
For fiscal year 2013-2014 the UPR’s consolidated budget summed $1.6 billion, its debt in bonds and notes figured $587 million of which it paid $48 million to amortize such debt. The contribution of 9.6 percent of tax revenues collected by central government to the UPR total $834 million of the budget. This serving as evidence of the relation that the local economy has over the finances of not only the UPR but also its students. Fewer tax revenues mean a smaller local government contribution to the UPR and therefore tuition raises, service cuts, and downsizing. All this directly affecting UPR student’s pockets and jeopardizing their academic goals.
“The University of Puerto Rico, as a body of higher education, is the repository of the highest aspirations of the Puerto Rican people.”-The Declaration of Principles of the General Rules for the University of Puerto Rico