ICYMI: How Universities Are Trying to Do Right by Puerto Rico

Chronicle of Higher Education
By Brianna Tucker

About two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York called on his state’s public universities to offer to enroll the territory’s students at in-state tuition rates. “This action,” he said, “will alleviate a huge burden for these families as they try to repair and rebuild their lives.”

Since then, dozens of institutions in the State and City University of New York systems have opened their doors to students from Puerto Rico and other affected American territories in the Caribbean. CUNY has identified 121 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who qualify for in-state tuition for the remainder of the academic year. A senior staff member has been assigned to help the students navigate the application, financial-aid, and college- and course-selection processes.

Several CUNY presidents are also exploring possible exchange programs with the 11-campus University of Puerto Rico system, said Vita C. Rabinowitz, provost and executive vice chancellor at CUNY, that would be modeled on a program that Queens College operates through the National Student Exchange. CUNY students would be able to work in internships and contribute to relief efforts in Puerto Rico, while Puerto Rican students could come to the mainland, she said.

“We want a more genuine exchange, universitywide, and we’re working together to do that,” said Ms. Rabinowitz.

CUNY and SUNY institutions are among many colleges nationwide that are seeking to help students devastated by the hurricane, which has left more than a million people without electricity and hundreds of thousands without clean water even though more than three months have passed since it struck the island. And helping, as many colleges are finding, can be a complicated process. The lack of available housing can curb ambitions to offer aid. Administrative details, like who receives tuition and how it is paid, can present pitfalls. And efforts to help students can have unintended and harmful effects on the island’s campuses.

New York University, for example, announced a Hurricane Maria Assistance Program that would cover full-time tuition, housing, a meal plan, and health insurance for Puerto Rican students. Instead of paying their tuition to NYU, visiting students would pay their home institution.

The application deadline was initially December 15, but, at the University of Puerto Rico’s request, NYU moved it to December 1. That way, UPR could have more time to calculate its budget, said Josh Taylor, NYU’s associate vice chancellor for global programs. “There’s a fine line between being helpful in a way that’s also supportive of institutions in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to make sure we don’t contribute to further damaging those institutions.”

NYU received more than 250 applications from students enrolled in the Universities of Puerto Rico and of the Sacred Heart, which is in San Juan. NYU has paid special attention to applicants who were already in New York, and has admitted about 50 students.

Officials at Tulane University, in New Orleans, have a sense of what UPR is going through. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 100,000 students attending colleges along the Gulf Coast, thousands of Tulane students evacuated the city and found temporary homes at other institutions. Roughly 86 percent of those students eventually returned to Tulane. Driven by a desire to serve Puerto Rico’s students in the way theirs were, Tulane officials announced a Guest Semester Program.

“It was because of the support of other institutions nationally that we were able to keep our doors open,” said Satyajit Dattagupta, vice president for enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admission. “It was an overwhelming sense to give back after the way universities took Tulane students in.”

At NYU, Tulane expects visiting students to pay tuition to their home institutions, while Tulane will cover the remaining costs: full-time tuition, housing, and a basic meal plan. But both universities have found their efforts stymied by a common problem: a shortage of student housing. More than 500 students applied to Tulane, but because of the lack of on-campus housing, just 62 spots could be offered.

On Campus and Online

The State University System of Florida plans to welcome about 3,300 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We are doing everything we can to help them throughout this process,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a written statement directing the system’s 14 colleges to offer in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students affected by the hurricane.

Nearly all of the public institutions in the state stepped up. Visiting students will pay tuition to UPR or their home institution, to alleviate the potential financial burden on them. To make transfer easier and more transparent, Florida’s universities also set up dedicated websites and phone lines for their academic programs, university contacts, and coursework. The Florida system will monitor how long the students stay at its institutions, what courses they take, and how successful they are.

Florida International University will welcome the most visitors to its campus: 880 graduate and undergraduate students, whose out-of-state tuition waivers will be good for the remainder of the academic year. Students from Puerto Rico, with an eye on the slow pace of recovery, have asked whether that period will be extended. “At this point,” the university said in a report to the state system, “we are encouraging students to plan their courses at FIU in light of eventual return to their home institutions.”

At least one institution in the system, the University of North Florida, envisions a longer commitment: It will waive out-of-state tuition for its 32 Puerto Rican students for up to eight semesters.

The University of Florida, meanwhile, has adopted an unusual approach: Students can pursue their degrees through its online degree program, UF Online.

“We thought deeply about the kind of assistance that won’t interrupt their studies, but also successfully return to their home institution,” said Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost.

Roughly half of the island’s population is without electricity due to power-grid damage, and many residents live by the power of emergency generators. While a handful of campuses have already reopened, some students are still without access to clean water or livable conditions.

But the University of Florida stands by its choice of aid. “We feel this kind of continuity provides a sense of normalcy — a good student can be successful face to face or online,” said W. Andrew McCullough, its associate provost for teaching and technology.

It expects to accommodate almost 1,000 students in an online classroom, and at least 300 students have enrolled in UF Online so far.

When Puerto Rico’s students come to Florida’s institutions, the state system hopes they will feel at home. “We’re all being very accommodating, to the point where they want to stay,” said Kristin Whitaker, the system’s associate vice chancellor for public policy and advocacy. “But I’m sure many are ready to get home and be with their families, and whatever our universities can do to make that possible, we will.”

Student Involvement

Students at mainland colleges have also risen to the occasion. Many are leading their own efforts to support the visiting students and connecting them with resources they’ll need once they arrive.

Florida International’s student-body president, for example, created a campaign for current students to donate their dining-hall money to the visiting students, said Ms. Whitaker.

At CUNY, students have begun a disaster-relief fund to send supplies and money directly to the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

And at NYU, students have proposed ways to help Puerto Rican students with unexpected expenses like public transportation. NYU students have also proposed raising money for things like laboratory equipment and supplies for Puerto Rico’s campuses.

But students in Puerto Rico have more than financial concerns; the psychological aftermath of Hurricane Maria may keep students from traveling to the mainland in the first place.

Take Axel Javier Noguera Colón. He’s a third-year industrial-biotechnology student at UPR at Mayagüez, and one of thousands anxious about the future of their campus and surrounding community. Students on the island lack money to buy food, he said, or to pay rent for their apartments.

Mr. Noguera Colón decided to stay at UPR-Mayagüez so he could help his family in Guayama, a two-hour drive away. The campus itself has recovered its internet service, clean water, and electricity. But his family’s home lacks those resources as well as communications.

He also feared that a decision to leave might imperil the future of a specialized program like his. Jumping ship could mean fewer students enrolled, which Mr. Noguera Colón worries will result in less financial aid and funding for expensive lab equipment and, potentially, an end to his biotechnology program.

For many students in Puerto Rico, the far-off prospect of a return to normalcy can feel deflating. To commute to class, absorb material, and readjust to being a full-time student is a slow process — one that proceeds, he said, “step by step.”