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Puerto Rico - Higher Education

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferencePuerto Rico - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The Public Sector: According to data published by the Consejo de Educación Superior, during the 1999-2000 school year, some 79 public and private college and university level institutions of higher learning existed alongside what are called postsecondary educational institutions. (The figures count each recinto or campus branch as one institution, and they comprise two year colleges, four year colleges, and institutions with graduate programs; some emphasize the liberal arts, and others are specialized.) Of these 22 are public and 57 are private; total full and part time enrollment comes to 174,550 students, of which 73,846 are in the public sector (61.7 percent of which are women, and 38 percent are men). In the 57 private campuses, enrollments come to a total of 100,704 (59 percent are women, and 40.2 percent are men). In addition to the institutions just mentioned, Puerto Ricans also dispose of numerous private or proprietary postsecondary schools that do not quite fit the portrait ascribed to a college and university. Seventy-nine institutions of higher education of varying quality, completeness, and mission constitute a large number for a population of approximately 3,000,000.

The curricular matrix of the public University of Puerto Rico (headquartered in Río Piedras) forms the basis of undergraduate study in virtually all the public and private colleges and universities on the island.

Admission standards at the U.P.R. (Río Piedras and Mayagüez), especially in the postgraduate professional schools (e.g., Law and Medicine), are generally higher than those prevailing in other Puerto Rican institutions. Because of limited enrollments, an entering undergraduate must offer a proper college preparatory high school diploma and a competitive GPA (usually a solid B average); he or she must also take an entrance examination.

The typical Arts and Sciences B.A. candidate spends the first two years in the School of General Studies satisfying distribution requirements of various sorts before concentrating in one of many majors available during the junior and senior years. During the freshman and sophomore years, the student also takes the prerequisites necessary to the anticipated major. Perhaps in imitation of the University of Chicago's graduate "Divisions," the university is divided into "faculties," i.e., Humanities (Humanidades): social sciences (Ciencias sociales), natural sciences (Ciencias naturales). It is also divided into "Schools" (or "Colleges") like Education (Educación, or Pedagogía) and "Programs" (Business, Architecture, Planning [Planificación], Communications, etc.). Postgraduate programs in Law and Medicine (with special distinction in the field of tropical medicine) have been expanded extensively since the university's inception in the 1920s.

The similarly distinguished institution founded at an early date in the West Coast city of Mayagüez for Engineering and Agricultural Sciences resembles the state "A and M" universities developed in nineteenth and twentieth century North America. This Mayagüez campus, still subject to governance by the central U.P.R. governing board (Río Piedras), has now begun to agitate for its separation from the flagship campus.

Hopes for the island's further economic expansion into fields like petrochemicals and high-technological electronics have led to emphasis on technological and business matters, as well as in the several four and two year universities and regional colleges (colegios universitarios and regionales) created during the period starting in the early 1960s in such smaller cities and towns as Humacao and Cayey, Carolina, Bayamón, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Utuado, and Ponce. However, these latter institutions also maintained the more traditional curriculum in the humanities and the sciences. By the mid-1990s, the University of Puerto Rico had become a university system (upgraded by some 11 new units since 1962) recognized as such by the University Law of 1966, with an overall budget of about two-thirds of a billion dollars (set by the same Law at 9 percent of the total government revenues), and in the 1999-2000 school year, serving almost 70,000 students on both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels of a total public university student population of 73,846.

It is argued that the expansion of the University of Puerto Rico system has been achieved at the expense of the Río Piedras campus' upkeep, resources, and the salaries it pays its faculty. It has become increasingly difficult to attract and retain top faculty talent, especially in the highly competitive business and technical fields. Requests for increased funding (set in 1996 at 9.65 percent of total government revenues) have usually been made in connection with the university's relation to the research and development needs of business and the job market in the high tech sector of the island economy. The technical and research infrastructure has absorbed more and more of the money available. The university also publicizes its traditional rôle as an indispensable problem solver with respect to various social issues.

In exchange for virtual monopoly control over the island's public higher education resources, under Chancellor Jaime Benítez, the U.P.R (University of Puerto Rico system) embraced the policies favored by the Commonwealth party of Luis Muñoz Marín. It became the ré gime's partner in the P.P.D.'s many projects of social engineering; politically the U.P.R. did its best to marginalize alternatives to the Estado Libre Asociado concept. Educationally the U.P.R. opened the door to the sort of mass higher education through which the P.P.D. hoped to reduce the power of the former élite governing classes. The U.P.R. constituted the single most important factor in the régime's policy (1) of industrialization and (2) of technological research and development. Finally, the U.P.R. became the means through which the P.P.D. created what it most desired: a native middle class largely devoted to its cause. The U.P.R. stood for, and did much to define, what Muñoz loved to call el Progreso. Though itself a hotbed of independentista thinking and feeling, its Department of Hispanic Studies and various pockets within General Studies, the Social Sciences, and elsewhere in the Humanities, the institution as such helped weaken the cause of Puerto Rican independence, at least temporarily. Perhaps ironically, not a few of its graduates came to identify themselves with the cause of statehood for Puerto Rico.

In the Humanities at least (with the possible exception of Hispanic studies), the University Library, while generally adequate, cannot truly be labeled a research library. There are too many gaps. These occur in, for example, Classics, Modern Languages and Literatures, Oriental Studies, and the like. Thus, advanced scholarly Humanistic research requires study abroad.

However, one of the U.P.R.'s truly enduring accomplishments should be remembered at this juncture. During the 1950s and 1960s, it identified individuals of talent, often from relatively disadvantaged social classes, educated them, and then provided the means to send them abroad to mainly to the United States and to Western Europe for further advanced study. While abroad, these young men and women came into contact with first-rate research facilities (laboratories, libraries, and teachers), as well as with foreign contemporaries of talent. They returned to teaching jobs in Puerto Rico, bringing to their work on the island not merely what they had learned abroad but also their experience of integration into contexts relevant to, yet wider than, the Puerto Rican reality to which they had been born and in which they lived.

The Private Sector: Enrollments in the historically confessional (Protestant, in the case of the eleven campuses of the Universidad Interamericana, and Roman Catholic, as in the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and the four campuses of the Pontificia Universidad de Puerto Rico), as well as in the secular, establishments of higher education have for some time exceeded those of the public ones. Unlike the principal campuses of the U.P.R., these institutions are almost exclusively dedicated to teaching. The total of their undergraduate enrollments is 90,677 (graduates in Education: 10,027) for a grand total of 100,704 (as opposed to a public grand total of 73,846). Also, more often than not, the private university student tends to come from families whose income is lower than that of public university students' families. In the mid-1990s the average private institution family income was $11,728 while that of the public university was $15,221. Little or no direct institutional financing is provided for private institutions from state funds (except for specially earmarked research projects of interest to the state). Virtually all funding derives from tuition payments, which are considerably higher than those of the public-sponsored colleges and universities.

The low income levels of private school students is a result of the availability of Federal funds for which these students are eligible, especially the Pell Tuition Grants program, a program to help students from low income families finance their college education. As noted above, about 90 percent of the 8,000 students matriculated at the Universidad del Turabo receive Pell grants. The 1996-99 catalogue of Turabo announces average annual tuition and fees set at $2,784; the maximum Pell grant award in 1997 was set at $2,470. In addition, there were available Federal and State funds to students with great financial need, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Grant; a Puerto Rican scholarship fund for qualifying students; a Puerto Rican Educational Fund for students whose family income is $3,500 per capita or less; a Puerto Rican State Student Incentive Grant, administered by the Consejo de Educación Superior, to which a given cooperating institution may make application on behalf of specific candidates; subsidized Federal and Ford loans to students; Federal Parent Loans (PLUS); and Federal Work-Study Programs. All these sources of funding are also available for students at public institutions. Various Athletic Scholarships are also provided for outstanding student athletes.

The situation at the Universidad del Turabo is to all intents and purposes mirrored at the other private institutions recognized and accredited by the Consejo de Educación Superior. The private institutions of greatest interest are those, like the Universidad del Turabo, which have forged a genuine sense of mission for themselves since their founding, as well as those, like the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, which have undergone a process of constant renewal over the years. Far less burdened with the kind of bureaucracy characteristic of the public U.P.R., these private schools have been able to exert an influence on island educational policy far greater than their somewhat marginal status would appear to authorize.

The Universidad del Turabo belongs to a network of institutions known as the Ana G. Méndez University System. As a member of the Ana G. Méndez University System, which operates under the auspices of the Ana G. Méndez Educational Foundation, Turabo is governed by the System's Board of Trustees—the body to whom the chancellor and his office are responsible. The Board approves the mission of the Foundation and its several institutions, its budgets, administers its business, confirms appointments, establishes salaries, approves academic programs and long-range planning, and supervises the distribution of funds.

Admission requirements at the Universidad del Turabo include a valid high school diploma (or a high school certificate); if 25 or under, the College Entrance Examination and the Diagnostic and Placement Center test offered by Turabo (students older than 25 must take only the Diagnostic and Placement test); possession of at least the minimum "admission index;" and if the candidate does not reach the level required, a personal interview. Less stringent than the requirements at the U.P.R., these requirements also permit a degree of individual flexibility.

The University is divided into various "Schools" (i.e., Education, Business Administration, Sciences and Technology, Engineering, and Liberal Arts—the latter being further divided into Departments of Humanities and Social Sciences). Each of these has its own requirements and programs of study. A GPA of 2.0 is required for the B.A., associate degrees may also be earned, and certain limited graduate programs are available (e.g., Education). In addition, the University offers programs of Extension and Continuing Education, as well as maintaining Off-Campus centers in Yabucoa, Naguabo, and Cayey whose programs lead to bachelor's degrees in Social Sciences, Education, and Business Administration.

Computing resources are distributed in clusters and work-stations within the various schools. This could be, for example, a SUN SPARCstation network, with 25 SUN workstations, numerous Macintosh Quadras, and Windows-type PCs in Engineering; a computing lab in the School of Business; a 25 unit Apple Share network in the School of Science; and older Macs (largely for word-processing) for Humanities.

Two closely interconnected elements appear to have shaped the mission the Universidad del Turabo has designed for itself. The first of these is the obviously practical nature of the curriculum, with its emphasis on imparting skills to students wishing to move up in the world—to become teachers or to work in business or construction, etc. The second element has to do with the uni versity's sense of its place, which is in the foothills of an impoverished mountain region almost systematically stripped of whatever economic wealth it might have had in times past, specifically in cane, tobacco, and coffee. These resources were taken away, and nothing was successfully put in their place. Much of the population has emigrated to the United States; many of those remaining are dependent upon food stamps and other forms of handouts. This is the region the university identifies itself with and functions in.

However, it has neither the resources nor the inclination to impose upon its region and student body its own predetermined agenda of social improvement. In a profound sense it collaborates with its region. It provides what many of its young people want and are quite willing to work for. The campus consequently insists on providing its student clientèle with a clean, honest, and disciplined place; it is spotless (no trash strewn about; clean, neat, and well kept up buildings), and this is due as much to the students' care as it is to ground crew cleanup squads. (The contrast with the clearly neglected Río Piedras campus of the U.P.R. is striking.) The Turabo campus is identified with the kind of life to which numerous students there aspire; in that way it differs from the all too often overcrowded and perhaps messy quarters in which many students live in at home. In addition, the friendly civility of the Turabo staff reflects little of the bureaucratic hauteur to be found in the larger, more impersonal public institutions.

Much is being hoped of ongoing university initiatives that are both in keeping with its academic nature and innovative with regard to its contemporary and past academic emphases. One of these initiatives is that of the Center for Humanistic Studies, founded in 1981, which, along with the desire to strengthen university library resources—at present quite poor—in the Humanities, recognizes the intellectual and spiritual centrality of the Humanities and Fine Arts to a life well lived.

Another university, the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart University), located in Santurce (part of the San Juan Metropolitan Area), came into being (1935) as the outgrowth of a girls' school founded in 1880 by the Mothers of the Sacred Heart. This teaching order was, itself, the creation of Mother Madeleine-Sophie Barat, now canonized as a saint of the Church in the France of 1800, in order to prepare girls for life in the new, "modern" world order consequent to the upheavals of the French Revolution. Thus, its raison d'être is closely related to the issues of change brought about by the emergence of Post-Enlightenment modernity, a matter hardly irrelevant to conditions in late nineteenth century and twentieth century Puerto Rico where, incidentally, women have come to play a central rôle both in education and politics. The University decided to become coeducational in 1973; although still strongly affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, it has become increasingly secularized in administrative and teaching personnel.

In 1999-2000 the student body numbered 5,184 (3,355 women and 1,829 men). Bachelor's degrees may be earned in Liberal Arts (art, education, languages and literatures, history, international relations, economics, commercial studies, mathematics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology), as well as in secretarial and library sciences, business administration, information technology, nursing, and communications; there exist a number of special programs, including educational technology, tourism, public relations, as well) Finally, the U.S.C. maintains an extensive Program in Continuing Education.

The Library has made great strides in recent decades, but it remains inadequate, containing a third of the volumes to be found in a good United States liberal arts college with one-quarter the enrollment of U.S.C. Computing facilities need expansion and upgrading too. Financing is the problem. Like Turabo, U.S.C. depends heavily on tuition, which, of course, translates into Pell Tuition Grants, and on Federal funding—loans and outright grants—for infrastructures (e.g., a Women's Residence Hall and the Library building). Private foundational assistance has been solicited and granted for faculty salaries.

An interesting sponsoring program on behalf of very low income students has met with success at the U.S.C. An adult or a couple may "adopt" a student by contributing $2,500 to his or her educational expenses. The scheme has the virtue of breaking down certain social barriers. A shared interest in the U.S.C. brings together the "godparent" and the young student who then often become personal friends, with the student frequently being invited to his or her godparent's home on social occasions and the latter also serving at times as a kind of extra-curricular mentor.

However, by far the most ambitious and potentially far-reaching initiative taken by the U.S.C. in recent times has been that, initiated in the early 1990s (and referred to above), led by Dr. José Jaime Rivera, its President, with respect to the crucial issue of public educational reform in Puerto Rico, i.e., The San Juan Metropolitan Alliance for Education (see the SJMAE Progress Report 1999).

This initiative owes much to previous thought and writing on education in Puerto Rico including the seminal work of the late Angel G. Quintero, Educación y cambio social en Puerto Rico: Una época crítica (2nd ed. 1974), Undersecretary and Secretary of the Department of Education from 1960 to 1968, and the hands-on experience of the present Secretary of Education, César Rey, formerly Dean at U.S.C.

Structured as a cooperative venture including, in addition to the U.S.C, The Ford Foundation, ASPIRA of Puerto Rico, Inc., The College Board of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, and the Department of Education (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico), the SJMAE established goals and selected initially for their achievement over a five year period three "allied" schools in the Cataño School District. More schools, including senior high schools, have been added subsequently. Eventually, the eight remaining schools of the Cataño District were also incorporated. The total includes public primary, middle, and high schools.

Meanwhile, Public Laws 149 and 158 (1999) passed by the Puerto Rican legislature, establishing the new school—community/charter schools and calling for the creation of a redefined "Teaching Profession" (Carrera Magisteria), offered an alternative to the previous highly centralized public school system by emphasizing on the most basic level a genuine collaboration of administrators, teachers, parents, and pupils viewed as equal partners in the educational process. The school must no longer act as the vehicle for the imposition by a central authority of values upon the communities served by it; rather, a credible dialogue between the above-named constituents should constitute the bedrock on which the trust and commitment to the ideal of the school—of schooling itself—should rest.

That, precisely, is the doctrine held by the SJMAE. No other approach stands a chance of commanding the indispensable support of the school's clientèle, it contends. Its philosophy thus resembles in interesting ways the "regionalism" being developed by the Universidad del Turabo.

The greater part of the Progress Report 1999 details what the SJMAE has done up to that date, with whom, and how it has proceeded. It has been a member of the Urban Partnership Program since its inception in 1994, and in this connection has defined the following specific objectives: "(1) promote model programs geared to help under-served students develop their talents and skills, and thus [eventually] attain a university degree; (2) promote collaboration and coordination among programs; (3) Identify and disseminate information, including research; and (4) identify and support successful initiatives" (Progress Report 1999. With respect to its having received an award for its work (1998), the SJMAE defined several new objectives "aimed toward the promotion of systemic change": to encourage changes in the school culture; to increase innovative teaching/learning practices and provide continuous professional development; to promote curricular articulation among educational levels; to promote students' development in the personal, academic, social, and occupational aspects by integrating counseling and curricular activities across all educational levels; and to strengthen collaboration between parents, the schools, the district, and the region. (The region constitutes the curriculum level in the hierarchical structure between the school district and the center office of the Puerto Rico Department of Education. There are ten regions.)

The choice of the Cataño District came about because of its location within the general Metropolitan Area, its many problems and poverty, and because students of Education at the U.S.C. had been using some of its schools for its practice teaching programs. The first two schools chosen were Isaac del Rosario and, a bit later, A.S. Pedreira; middle schools Mercedes García de Colorado and Las Américas were selected, and so forth. The teachers were elected to be the first focus of the program's action; also, the special responsibilities of each of the components of the SJMAE were defined.

Not everything went smoothly, however. The fact that a good number of the schools had no principal—a problem endemic in the Puerto Rican school system, especially in its senior high schools—constituted a serious impediment. The effects of Hurricane Georges (1998) were brutally destructive and still have not been entirely remedied. Yet the Project's results have been very encouraging: in 1998 the Isaac del Rosario Elementary School was selected by the Federally sponsored Regional Conference on Improving America's Schools as one of eight schools whose records of improvement were outstanding; it also won the Puerto Rican Dr. Ángel Quintero Alfaro Award for outstanding educational innovation. Generally speaking, school dropout rates in Cataño have decreased significantly; the number of college-bound high school seniors has increased substantially; GPAs and test scores have improved also (although they still remain low and require improvement especially in mathematics and foreign languages); and, perhaps most important of all, students report a much greater sense of their own self-confidence as students and a more determined desire to succeed academically. The Progress Report 1999 states: "From mistrust, doubt, and skepticism there has been a movement to a growing faith that change is possible. This transformation brings with it the conviction that common goals are attainable through unity and the actual testing of programmatic alternatives. [There is a] palpable movement towards a growing receptivity to change [which will provide] the groundwork for the next stage of the Alliance work."

A team of five professors of mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico has accepted a task to work at developing a new math curriculum that will be used (and tested) by the Alliance. This effort may help bring about an improvement in the disappointing scores just mentioned.

Thus, each of the two private universities has committed to play a significant rôle in what surely looks like a reincorporation of democratic and people-oriented values into the educational system of Puerto Rico. Provided that the island's political authorities support their efforts and similar efforts by what appears to be a revitalized and open Department of Education, there are reasons to believe in the future of Puerto Rican mass education.

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