by Luis Gallardo Rivera
Puerto Rico’s public university system is highly subsidized. With annual tuition for an undergraduate degree averaging at less than $2,500, tuition provided only $73 million of the system’s $1.4 billion budget during the 2011-2012 fiscal year (or 5%). Though these numbers might alarm you, the system’s dependency on state dollars is not necessarily a problem. Along with the moral and philosophical benefits of providing accessible higher education, subsidizing university-level education has a positive impact on social and economic development for all of society. Accessible higher learning has been one of the main motors behind Puerto Rico’s increase in social mobility during the previous century. Today, there are more degrees per capita in Puerto Rico than there are among Puerto Rican populations living in the U.S.
Despite this, much of this public investment has gone to waste. After graduation, many youth and professionals leave the island to the United States, taking their subsidized degrees with them. NASA, U.S. government agencies, Boeing, bilingual school districts, hospitals from Texas, and Floridian police forces aggressively scout the island for local talent, tempting them with their higher salaries. Thirty-seven percent of students surveyed at the University’s Mayagüez campus, for example, plan on leaving the island after graduating. Not only has this lead to unprecedented population declines – deeper than those of any other U.S. state or territory – but the island is losing some of its most productive citizens. Seventeen percent of U.S. Latinas/os with engineering Ph.D’s, for example, are graduates of Puerto Rico’s public university system.
Though citizens are – and should be – able to come and leave the island as they please, these tendencies without a doubt have an effect on the return of the government’s investment in higher education. Puerto Rico’s public universities – largely financed and subsidized by Puerto Rican taxpayers – are exporting their graduates in mass. With 50% of emigrants between 2000 and 2010 having some sort of college education, the Puerto Rican government has spent billions during the last decade training the next generation of stateside nurses, teachers, doctors, and scientists. Puerto Rico, in effect, is subsidizing Florida schools and Texas hospitals. This is not exactly the best usage of public funding, especially if the intention is to improve the quality of life for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico.
Despite this, eliminating the subsidies and charging the market-rate for public higher education would drastically limit most Puerto Ricans’ access to higher education. Nor can the Puerto Rican government charge students’ different levels of tuition depending on whether or not they plan on leaving the island, as has been proposed by some student groups. Not to mention, identifying which students will leave the island is an impossible task in itself. Nor should the state punish students who in good faith took advantage of subsidized tuition only to decide to leave the island for an employment offer that they simply could not refuse.
One solution could be for the public university system to create a new Education Finance Authority that would take over the system’s tuition structure. This Authority “charges” students the full-market, non-subsidized rate for tuition in the form of debt but in a manner where students who remain in Puerto Rico for a given period of time will be “pardoned” of the tuition increase.
More specifically, each semester the university would charge “up front” a portion of the tuition, equal to the (subsidized) tuition rate currently being charged now. This “up front” tuition is payable with the same cash, grants, scholarships, and student loans of the present. Debt would then be issued to the student by the Authority for the remainder of the tuition at a low interest rate. Upon graduating, the student will so far have paid in cash (or grants, loans, etc.) what they normally would have paid prior to the reform, but with student debt towards the Authority for the remainder of the market value of their education. University graduates that remain in Puerto Rico after completion of their degree will see a quarter of their total Authority debt forgiven each year until entirely exonerated. Those graduates that decide to leave Puerto Rico would be required to assume payments on their Authority debt, as if it were any other student loan.
In no way does the program deny young professionals the freedom to migrate stateside. It simply requires for emigrating graduates to pay back what the state has invested in their education. This assures that the state’s investment in education stays in Puerto Rico and that those taxpayers who stay do not end up subsidizing emigration. The final result would be a university system just as accessible as it is now but with a better balanced – and effective – budget.
* At the moment, the author, with the Association of Legisladores Municipales, is working on a draft of legislation that will address this issue.
Luis Gallardo Rivera holds a M.A in public administration and is a legislator for the Municipality of Aguas Buenas in Puerto Rico. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Municipal Legislators of Puerto Rico and teaches courses in public administration for the University of Phoenix.