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.
A spokesman for the organization that administers the ACT said it lumps in Puerto Rican test takers with international ones, and couldn’t say how many there are. The ACT closed two of its five test centers in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes.
These exams are used by mainland universities not only to consider applicants’ qualifications, but to find and recruit students who score highly. “We have to believe that there are students in those [public] schools who are good and would be competitive, but how do you find them?” said Tufts’ Jiménez.
They also drive a frenzy elsewhere of practice tests, tutoring and other strategies to gain advantage in the competition for admission that’s largely absent from the public high schools here.
When they do sit for the SAT, most Puerto Rican students take it in their senior year, typically too late to try again for a higher score.
“They really don’t even tell you to study for it,” Flores said. “We don’t have that culture of studying for [the SAT]. It’s not a thing. So if you’re not even studying for it, imagine what the scores are like.”
If that’s exasperating to ambitious students, another topic elicits downright anger from them: the quality of public high school counselors.
School counselors are licensed by the Department of Health, not the Department of Education, and focus mostly on social and emotional issues rather than on what their students might do when they graduate.
“My school counselor was terrible. I can count with my hand the times he actually gave us information about how to apply to college,” said Ricardo González Santos, a freshman at the University of Puerto Rico.
“There were a lot of students that wanted to pursue a college career in the mainland. He was, like, ‘Why would you want to do that? There’s enough problems here. Why don’t you just stay here?’”
González added: “What do the problems in my country have to do with my academic dreams? It’s not about questioning, it’s about actually supporting us. Why can’t I go away and then come back and help my country?”
College admission offices in Puerto Rico require only a PAA score and a grade-point average, rather than the recommendations and long resumés of extracurricular activities preferred by many mainland universities. Flores and others said that counselors give their students little direction about these things. “The counselors take the easy way out,” she said. “Getting you into a university is good enough. It doesn’t matter what university.”
The University of Puerto Rico is a viable alternative, with several highly ranked programs and comparatively low tuition, but it too is imperiled as a result of the hurricanes, the island’s $73 billion in public debt and the many competing demands for funding. Its budget has been deeply cut, tuition doubled this year from $57 per undergraduate credit to $115 — still low by mainland standards, but a big jump — and even the historic California Mission-style landmark buildings at the center of the flagship Río Piedras campus, on the outskirts of San Juan, seem worn. An estimated $132 million of repairs are needed system-wide.
“That is very touching for me,” Morales said. “How is it going to be accessible? Kids like me won’t even be able to access the University of Puerto Rico.”
Students report that not enough classes are being offered, worsening that already low 48 percent six-year graduation rate.
Some organizations, activists and policymakers are trying to chip away at these many problems.
The governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, announced in February the creation of educational development accounts in which the territory will invest, beginning in August, a total of $1,000 each for every student, payable on high school graduation, to help with college, start a business or just discourage dropouts.
A handful of mainland institutions have teamed up with Puerto Rican ones on programs that include student exchanges. Texas Woman’s University, for instance, just began a partnership with Universidad Ana G. Méndez-Cupey, and together they’ve adopted a public elementary school that was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria, with plans to provide teacher training and instructional materials.
Kinesis, a nonprofit founded by a retired bank executive, José Enrique Fernández, readies promising eighth- to 12th-graders for college with academic advising, financial education, scholarships and other services. It says it has sent 325 of these students to colleges including Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown and Cornell; 152 have so far received bachelor’s degrees, 69 have gotten master’s degrees, and 25 have earned doctorates.
Felt banners with the names and seals of these and other schools hang on the wall of the Kinesis offices in San Juan’s Cupey barrio, and there are cubicles where students meet with college-readiness advisors and classrooms where they bone up on their English and technology skills, decorated with colorful murals that exhort them to “JUST START” and “WORK HARD.”
In addition to the 325 Kinesis alumni now in college, there are now 573 so-called “bright stars” high school students who hope to join them, up from 15 in 2010. Only funding constraints have kept the foundation from adding more, Fernández said.
“I’m trying to create something so that people believe in what we’re doing and copy it,” he said as he gave a tour of the foundation. “We need to educate them to be the ones who are going to lead.” He gestured toward a bar chart projected in a conference room, showing the gradual increase in the number of students that Kinesis has helped get college educations. “What we want is for everyone to have this — the thing that in the 21st century you need to be successful.”
Kinesis counselors were among the exhibitors the next morning at a summit for high school students from around the island in the Puerto Rico Convention Center, encouraging them to consider college and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Some local universities were there too. There were none from the mainland.
The principal sponsor was Amgen, one of several biopharmaceutical companies that have plants in Puerto Rico. “We want to let them know, if they like to do science or technology, they will have a job,” said Aixa Caballer Cruz, senior manager for corporate affairs. It’s also true, she said, that, “If you don’t have resources for the future, the companies can’t stay.”
Ada Monzón, the emcee, is a local television meteorologist who, on an island so vulnerable to weather, is among Puerto Rico’s biggest social-media influencers, and who has made education a cause.
“We have to make the island more resilient,” Monzón said. “And education is the foundation of our entire economic system.”
But even the students in the room who aspire to college said they likely wouldn’t stray far from home for it.
Faviola Garcia, for example, a high school sophomore who wants to study microbiology, said she’s “trying to stay in Puerto Rico because my family and everything is here. I’d like to stay where I was born.” Her friend, Frances Alley, said she wants to be a surgeon, and even though there are more opportunities for that on the mainland, “I’m kind of scared to go. I would be alone.”
Alecxavier Bilbao is only in the ninth grade, but he’s already thinking about a university degree in chemistry or physics, for which he knows “the best colleges are on the mainland.” He’s steeling himself to leave. College is about independence, after all, Bilbao said. “You can’t depend on other people.”
There’s yet another massive challenge to getting Puerto Rican high school graduates to go to college anywhere: having jobs for them here when they finish.
Examples abound of college graduates who work in retail stores and as receptionists. The territory has predicted its already battered economy will shrink by another 11 percent next year.
“You have a monthly [student loan] bill of $1,500 a month and you look at salaries in Puerto Rico. It’s a no-brainer. You stay in the U.S.,” said Manuel Dox, who did come back after gradating from Babson College, and who has assembled a patchwork of real estate investments in San Juan, runs a farm and works other jobs.
It’s a conundrum, said José Caraballo Cueto, an associate professor of economics at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey and director of the Puerto Rico Census Information Center. “Students go, then come back, and they can improve the labor force and bring their knowledge here. But there is also a lot of concern that because of the economic situation most of the students who go to the U.S., they never return. Because they have a lot of opportunities there and not as many here. It’s hard to break” this cycle.
Kevin Ramirez Suárez wants to stay after he earns his degree in computer science at the University of Puerto Rico, where he’s now a sophomore. But, he said, “I feel boxed in. Jobs here don’t usually pay well. If you have a degree you can get a better job on the mainland.”
As for Morales, she now works as an advisor with, and has created a mentorship program for, public high school seniors in a poor area bordering San Juan’s financial district who want to go to college.
“They want to do things with their lives, but they don’t know how to get there. They don’t have the resources available to them,” she said.
She mentors one student in particular. “It’s shocking to see all the information that he does not get. His school doesn’t show him the University of Puerto Rico. He doesn’t know about the FAFSA,” the federal form required to receive financial aid. “He’s a clear example of the situation here in Puerto Rico. He’s just so lost.”
“We want to see a change here,” she said. “Maybe we will be the people who drive the change.”
This story about colleges in Puerto Rico was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.