What’s Happening to Puerto Rico’s Universities Amid Hurricane Aftermath?
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico.(Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)

Sadly, as I noted in a recent column that I penned on the many devastating components of our federal government’s failing flood insurance program, the impacts of the 2017 hurricane season on our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico are far reaching. Given the current state of affairs, Americans of all creeds and socio-economic backgrounds are virtually required to help take the brunt of the multi-trillion dollar recovery costs caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma.

But, the most saddening component to the costs that taxpayers will face is the coming lack of proper accountability for recovery funds for higher education in the Commonwealth. You see, even though many Americans don’t like paying higher and higher taxes, we end up doing so. Thus, the funds that trickle into the federal government’s general fund from taxation will be earmarked for disaster relief and management funding, per standard appropriation practices.

Nevermore, the real costs of addressing higher education recovery efforts in response to Puerto Rico’s urgency for recovery are terribly unequitable when disbursement to these institutions occurs. This issue was made prominent in recent days after the New York Times ran a feature on how higher education institutions, including the University of Puerto Rico, have received barely any storm aid.

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After the devastating results of Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Department of Education authorized the disbursement of $41 million in emergency assistance funding. $8.9 million of those funds actually made it to the shores of the island. The remainder was divided among various private and public institutions in the continental United States, with those mainland institutions receiving monetary support–or incentive in some ways–to temporarily support displaced students.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos justified the rationale behind these remunerations and said amounts were decided on properly. Democratic members of Congress took issue with this, via a letter sent to Secretary DeVos in April 2018.

“The department provided just one-fifth of all reallocated campus-based aid to Puerto Rico despite the disproportionate damage to the territory,” the letter states, demanding that the Education Department “act expeditiously to change course” and address major concerns over disaster relief.

According to financial totals on damage to higher education facilities tabulated by the Cronkite Borderlands Project for Arizona PBS, the University of Puerto Rico’s eleven campuses damages exceeded $133 million. That same report admits, “most of which the university system hopes to recover through insurance payments.”

Insurance payments don’t remedy lost assets and funds–immediate or future. Funding the university for the next five years will cost an additional $250 million (intended to be sourced from government sources) for the system’s campuses. Additionally, tuition will increase to $115 per credit versus $57 per credit in the 2019 fiscal year. By 2023, students will pay $140 per credit, the report indicates.

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And, we can’t forget the bankruptcy filed by the Commonwealth government not too long ago, the impending bond crisis, and the inevitable series of cost-draining bailouts in the future. How does that sound? Not too good.

Being a more-fiscally conservative individual than the elected co-signers of that above-mentioned letter, the sentiment of wondering what actually happened to specifically earmarked funds not fulfilling their named purpose is a common sentiment. Like I said, even if we don’t cut the funding or lower the taxes in the grand scheme of it all, we should at least know how the money is spent.

Given the major disparities of damage on Puerto Rican institutions and their facilities versus the administrative and financial requirements of private institutions with hundred-million-dollar endowments over in the states, you’d expect a greater amount to be sent to the most needy.

One approach to resolving such a crisis would be achieving the most cost-effective method of repairing and restoring centers of higher learning with a public-private partnership in mind. Just maybe, when we emphasize the public aspect, we ensure financial accountability and transparency.

This is part two of a series on the post-2017 hurricane season and the build-up to the 2018 season. Read part one on federal flood insurance here.