Puerto Rican college students forced to choose between recovery and education

Hurricane Maria ravaged their schools. They can stay and rebuild or continue their studies in the mainland.

Sandy Nieves in the door of her heavily damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.   (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Sandy Nieves in the door of her heavily damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Puerto Rico’s hundreds of universities and colleges were devastated by Hurricane Maria nearly two weeks ago, forcing many students to make the difficult choice between helping with recovery or resuming their education in the mainland.

“They’re concerned they might not graduate,” said Liane Davila-Martin, co-president of the Puerto Rican Student Association at Ohio State University. Davila-Martin, who has family and friends living on the island added that, despite these fears, many Puerto Rican students are “putting their families first.”

“One of my friends in Ponce… hasn’t been able to reach his family and he’s not worrying about finishing college,” Davila-Martin said. “If you don’t finish in four years, you might finish in five or six. It doesn’t matter.”

Hurricane Maria has devastated Puerto Rico, ravaging cities and villages, killing untold numbers, and leaving millions without power and basic necessities. More than half of the population is without clean drinking water and food is limited across the island. The category 4 storm left college campuses, like the University of Puerto Rico, in ruins, forcing them to keep their doors closed for weeks or months to come.

Students displaced by the hurricane and seeking to continue their education outside of the island face high travel costs, tuition fees, and room and board charges.

“Even if you go to a public state school, it’s a lot more expensive than Puerto Rico,” said Davila-Martin. “And there’s limited wifi, limited communication. It’s not like they can do much when it comes to research [of mainland schools].”

There are nearly a quarter of a million college students studying in Puerto Rico, who have had their education interrupted. Many are likely to travel to states like Connecticut, New York, and Florida to resume their studies. Some colleges plan to waive out-of-state tuition fees in an attempt to ease the financial burden on Puerto Rican students. Others plan to provide free housing and food to a select number of students.

But Andre M. Perry, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said waivers and limited allowances of free housing and food are not enough.

“There are many more costs… significant travel expenses, food, shelter, clothing,” Perry told ThinkProgress. “There should be supplemental aid packages from Congress to help support those costs that are not accounted for.”

Congress should take the same approach it took after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Perry said, referring to its passage of the Pell Grant Hurricane and Disaster Relief Act, which waived Pell Grant repayment for students impacted by natural disasters.

Perry, who was a professor at the University of New Orleans when Katrina devastated the city, said colleges should also have exchange programs in place, with the goal of receiving displaced students and sending faculty or staff to disaster-affected universities.

“We can create a way to deploy academic support, just the same way we send physicians, first responders, other personnel,” Perry said, likening the strategy to the Peace Corps. “It happened informally during Katrina… That’s the kind of support that these people need.”

This is especially important for Puerto Rico, which is already suffering from a “brain drain” brought on by the island’s debt crisis, Perry added.

“What I learned from the Katrina experience,” Perry said, “is that university presidents and higher education officials have to put pressure on legislative bodies to act.”

But given the Trump administration’s slow response in addressing the crisis in Puerto Rico, it’s unlikely that Congress will act. President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, for the first time since the hurricane hit the island nearly two weeks ago.

The global nonprofit organization Oxfam America on Tuesday condemned the Trump administration for its “inadequate” humanitarian response to Puerto Rico.

“[W]e’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response,” Oxfam America President Abby Maxman said in a statement. “The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner.”