In Puerto Rico, the odds are against high school grads who want to go to college

Published By
The Hechinger Report
Published On
April 26, 2019

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Desirée Morales Díaz didn’t choke up when she recounted how her high school counselor hadn’t heard of the common application, the form widely used by college admission offices on the mainland. Or how the counselor didn’t know low-income students like her were eligible for a waiver of the fee.

She didn’t lose her composure when she remembered the counselor telling her to not worry about taking the SAT until her senior year, at which point she realized she hadn’t been taught what she needed to know to do well.

She held it together when describing how, in spite of the staggering number of obstacles that stand in the way of students like her at high schools in Puerto Rico to graduate and go to college — particularly to prestigious colleges on the mainland — she was accepted by American University with plans to major in international affairs. And how she begged the university, unsuccessfully, for more financial aid.

It was when she recalled the resulting conversation with her father, a restaurant worker, and her mother, an administrative assistant, that Morales began to cry.

“I sat down with them and my dad said, ‘I’ll just take two jobs,’” she said, trying to hold back tears. “And that’s when I said no. I wouldn’t put my parents through this just to go to school in the United States.”

So unrelentingly are the cards stacked against them that only 694 high school graduates from all of Puerto Rico went to college on the mainland or abroad in 2016, the last year for which the figure is available from the U.S. Department of Education. That’s about 2 percent. The island’s population is 3.2 million, according to the Census Bureau.

Many among this small number are the children of higher-income families who can afford to pay for private schools or to hire college consultants, exacerbating a level of income inequality that economists at Puerto Rico’s Census Information Center say is third-highest in the world, after South Africa’s and Zambia’s.

“It’s essentially a vestige of colonialism,” said Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a rare example of a native Puerto Rican from modest means who went to college on the mainland, where he now is an assistant director of admissions at Tufts University.

The disparity serves as an extreme example of similar trends across the United States, where the children of higher-income families go to better colleges than those from lower-income ones. Even low-income students with the highest standardized test scores are more than three times less likely to go to top colleges than higher-income students, according to the Education Trust.

For Puerto Rico, it means an unremitting cycle in which too few people have the skills to work in knowledge-economy jobs — or create new opportunities and industries that can encourage other Puerto Ricans to go on to college, said Mari Aponte, former executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

“It is not good policy to keep Puerto Rico economically on a downturn in what feels like an endless loop of economic underperformance,” said Aponte, who also served as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and acting assistant secretary of state, and who has become an advocate for sending more Puerto Rican high school graduates to college. “The only way I know that this can be changed is when there’s access to higher education.”

Morales ended up enrolling at the University of Puerto Rico, where she finished in December with a degree in political science. As a graduate of a high school in Puerto Rico, she was beating the odds even to accomplish that.

Among the many other problems dragging down Puerto Rico’s stagnant economy, made worse by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, is a huge high school dropout rate and, among those students who do manage to graduate, a comparatively low trajectory to college — especially college on the mainland — and a high dropout rate there, too.

A third of high school students quit before they finish, more than double the current proportion in the rest of the United States, the U.S. Department of Education says. The Puerto Rican rate is from 2009-2010, the latest available in a territory whose government produces few up-to-date statistics, and which federal counts often don’t include; experts say it’s likely only gotten lower since then.

Fifty-one percent of those who graduate go on to college, according to the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, compared to 67 percent of suburban American high school graduates and 63 percent of rural and urban ones.

Of those who do enroll at universities on the island, fewer than half earn degrees, even after six years, the advocacy group Excelencia in Education reports, compared to more than 58 percent of college students nationwide.

The reasons are as formidable as they have been generally unnoticed outside Puerto Rico, where attention drawn by the hurricanes has moved on even as countless roofs continue to be covered by blue plastic tarpaulins and innumerable broken windows by plywood.

Because of a policy decision made elsewhere that dates back more than 50 years, for instance, Puerto Rican students take a Spanish-language college admission test that almost no mainland universities accept. Most public high school counselors have little knowledge of mainland admission requirements. Though English is required to be taught beginning in kindergarten, 80 percent speak English less than very well, the Census Bureau says. And the poverty rate is so high that few but the wealthiest Puerto Rican families can afford to send their kids away to college.

An estimated 44 percent of people in Puerto Rico live in poverty compared to 12.5 percent of other Americans. That’s twice the poverty rate of Mississippi, the poorest state. The median household income here is $19,775, according to the Census Bureau — less than the in-state tuition, fees, room and board for a public four-year university on the mainland, which the College Board reports is $21,370.

“It makes us really angry to see people getting all the opportunities in the world just because they’re rich,” said Valeria Flores Morales, a sophomore psychology major at the University of Puerto Rico who said she also was admitted to a top-ranked mainland university her family could not afford.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Puerto Rican high school graduates who want to go to college doesn’t have to do with money, however.

It stems from a 1964 decision by the College Board, which administers the SAT, to expand its market to Latin America with a Spanish-language edition of the predominant college entrance exam. Originally named the Prueba de Aptitud Académica but now called just the PAA — or “el College Board” by Puerto Ricans — the test was piloted in Puerto Rico and now is given there to every 11th and 12th grader.

Trouble is, almost no mainland universities accept it for admission, except from international students — which Puerto Ricans, as citizens of a U.S. territory, aren’t.

“It’s a real challenge for those who are trying to do the right thing and show their educational proficiency,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, who is herself Puerto Rican. “It impedes access to institutions they might be qualified for, because it’s not being accepted.”

The College Board said it does “not actively keep track” of the number of U.S. colleges that accept the PAA for admission, but it’s “a small number.”

That means students in Puerto Rico who want to go to mainland universities have to also take the SAT or ACT, which few public high schools encourage them to do.

Last year, 3,783 students in Puerto Rico took the SAT, the College Board reports, which, based on the most recent available enrollment figure of high school seniors from the Puerto Rico Department of Education, is less than 15 percent of the total.