In his budget address a few weeks ago, governor Fortuño referred to public, affordable higher education as a “privilege” that Puerto Rico provides to its students at no small cost to its citizens. To reinforce the message, he compared UPR tuition prices to the much higher ones of other, private, higher education institutions in the island, and of colleges and universities in the United States.
In an “us vs them” move seemingly designed to conceptually place responsible tax payers against protesting students, he stated that “tuition paid by students, when they do pay, is but a 3% of the university’s budget…the rest is paid by us taxpayers. Which is why our people, just and noble, yes, but also democratic and respectful of law and order, get upset when they see what we have all seen in the University these past two days.” As the strike grew bigger and more complicated, today involving all of the 11 campuses, a number of public and private citizens have echoed the governor’s general message, portraying the students as selfish, privileged, disorderly, and “ideologically” driven. As I write this column, the president of the UPR’s Board of Regents is stating, on the radio, that the striking students are “breaking down the institution”.
At the heart of this image is the idea that the university is too inexpensive for the individual students and too expensive for the state, thus rendering student complaints about the elimination of tuition waivers, and their insistence that tuition rates stay low, as shallow. I propose we examine this notion. Is the university really “too cheap”? Is it a “cost” to the state? “Cheap” and “expensive” are relative terms, and they arise from comparing the costs of the UPR with other institutions. However, is the comparison with private institutions in the island, and with public and private universities in the US, an appropriate comparison?
Private institutions in the island have helped the country meet an increasing demand for higher education degrees but in terms of efficiency and value, economic studies have shown that the University of Puerto Rico,with double the graduation rate and producing 95% of the island’s research output, represents the best return on investment for public funds.
Universities across the United States, a country traditionally known for its excellence in higher education, are experiencing problems that the states are concerned with. Two (related) ones are 1)access issues faced by minorities and low-income students and 2)the production of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees. Access problems are in great part due precisely to increasing tuition costs in 4 year colleges and universities. STEM degrees hover around 20% of US degrees, at a time when the country desperately needs to increase the domestic STEM workforce. Mainland universities have an average of only 14% of their student body qualifying for need-based Pell Grants. A number of efforts in the United States, including the intensive use of federal ARRA funds, are directed at increasing the number of underrepresented students and of STEM degrees.
In contrast, at the University of Puerto Rico, 40% of the degrees are STEM, and two-thirds of its student body qualifies for need-based aid. The UPR produces today 16% of the Hispanic STEM workforce in the US. Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have viewed their public university not as a cost or as a burden but as an investment-the kind of investment most needed in times of economic crisis.
The governor is fond of the “family” metaphor. He often compares Puerto Rico and its current fiscal crisis with a family that needs to make hard choices to face periods of economic crisis, and wonders out loud about why the UPR cannot seem to be able to “tighten its belt” like so many families have done around the island. But even within the metaphor, choosing to take resources away from the public university in times of fiscal crisis would be akin to taking away children’s educational opportunities. Few families would agree with this choice.
The constitution of Puerto Rico (section 5, art.2) provides for a free public education system covering grades 1 through 12. This was in 1952, when a high school diploma brought a certain amount of prestige and a number of job opportunities. It could easily be argued that what the high school diploma meant for the fifties, the college degree means for today.
Affordable, public higher education cannot be seen as cost or expense, but as value. It is one of those things where Puerto Rico consistently “lo hace mejor.” It is one of the best investments we have made as a collectivity, as a society. Let us protect it.