Institutional Resilience in Puerto Rico: A First Look at Efforts by Puerto Rican HSIs
By: Deborah Santiago, Emily Labandera, and Cassandra Arroyo, Excelencia in Education
Why do institutions serving students with the greatest needs, and greatest potential of benefiting from higher education, have to be so resilient? With limited resources, these institutions have to remain flexible and adaptable to unforeseen situations, and both external and internal demands while maintaining commitment to mission and creating a “new normal” in serving Latino and other low-income and first-generation students. This is not easy, not for institutions nor for faculty, staff, and students, who each confront these issues as individuals, as well as a collective, at an institution.
However, few colleges and universities in the U.S. have had to exemplify the level of resilience that the institutions in Puerto Rico have shown over the last five years. Colleges and universities in Puerto Rico have faced a convergence of challenges that have tested their spirit, structure, and sustainability. They have shown resilience through catastrophic natural disasters, significant fiscal austerity, large demographic shifts, unexpected governance/leadership changes, and an unpredictable and ongoing health pandemic. While these challenges are not new or unique to Puerto Rico, their intersection during a relatively short period of time created a nexus that requires institutional tenacity, commitment, flexibility, innovation, and adjustment.
Despite their significant efforts, there is scant attention to Puerto Rican institutions in national higher education policy discussions. Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic population in the U.S. (after those of Mexican descent). Further, they are all U.S. citizens, and the colleges and universities in Puerto Rico are all U.S. institutions, and both are part of the U.S. economy. Excelencia in Education has always included Puerto Rico, their students, and institutions in our analysis and programmatic efforts to highlight the importance of understanding and supporting institutions in the U.S. that have intentionally served Latino students.
To bring more attention to the innovative and intentional ways institutions in Puerto Rico are serving their students and sustaining their efforts, Excelencia created a multi-tiered project. In 2021, Excelencia published an environmental scan of conditions and context of the population, K-12 educational pipeline, higher education, and workforce in Puerto Rico. And this month, Excelencia published a study of resilience by a select group of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) in Puerto Rico addressing compounding challenges. Excelencia engaged: 1) Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Arecibo, 2) Universidad Ana G. Méndez-Gurabo, 3) University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, 4) University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, and, 5) University of Puerto Rico-Utuado in a series of interviews to share information on the challenges and opportunities the institutions and their students experienced over the last five years.
Figure 1. Locations of 5 Participating Institutions in Puerto Rico
The contexts and conditions that Puerto Rico has operated within over the past five years have created unique challenges that Puerto Rican HSIs have adapted to in innovative ways. From what we heard in the interviews, we categorized these institutions’ resilience strategies in the following four areas: 1) sustaining institutional management, 2) managing enrollment plans and expectations, 3) supporting student pathways, and, 4) preparing students for post-completion.
I. Sustaining Institutional Management
Addressing fiscal and budgetary constraints
The HSIs we interviewed identified various fiscal and budgetary challenges exacerbating the need to restructure to ensure the institution’s longevity. The public institutions have experienced decades of budget cuts that have only been heightened in the past five years. The private institutions have grappled with tuition dependency as a revenue source, contributing to their need to adapt to enrollment fluctuations. To address these challenges, these HSIs have implemented various academic and administrative restructuring strategies. One institution consolidated its campuses to centralize its student services, evaluation strategy, and curriculum. Other institutions have restructured or revised their curriculum in addition to streamlining their administration by changing staff and faculty composition.
Addressing the persisting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a myriad of challenges to the five institutions. Some institutions described difficulties in creating robust virtual course options and providing internet access. The majority described the pivot back to in-person learning as especially challenging, balancing educational quality with health and safety concerns. Due to the ongoing pandemic, all five institutions needed to quickly pivot to remote learning. Some institutions supplemented their efforts to continue to provide a quality education by implementing faculty training workshops. Other institutions focused on improving their technological equipment by utilizing external federal funds to pay for these enhancements. As the institutions transitioned back to in-person or hybrid learning, they took extensive measures to sanitize communal areas, create safety protocols, and offer opportunities for campus and local community members to get vaccinated.
II. Managing enrollment plans and expectations
Addressing the decline in college-age student population
Some institutions attributed declines in enrollment to the decrease in college-age students. This decline can be attributed to the out-migration of young adults and their families to the mainland in addition to the shrinking K-12 student population. The institutions discussed needing to change their enrollment management expectations and re-strategize their practices to address a changing student demographic. To address the changing student demographics, some institutions have taken steps to attract adult learners to their campus. These institutions provided specific courses or targeted their recruitment efforts around this population. Another institution expanded their course offerings to the mainland by establishing a satellite program there to serve the Puerto Rican diaspora and broader Latino community.
Addressing declines in enrollment
All five HSIs have described how decreases in enrollment over the past five years have negatively impacted their institution. Their difficulty maintaining prior enrollment levels has contributed to a decrease in tuition revenue, which is necessary to cover core expenses, balance their budget, and fund normal operations (e.g., facility maintenance, staff). These HSIs have enhanced and adapted their recruitment efforts to more intentionally attract students to their campus. Some institutions:
- focused on revising or expanding their degree programs,
- offered satellite programs or campuses on the mainland, or,
- adjusted admission criteria during the pandemic.
These institutions have also utilized various outreach strategies to more effectively engage students and parents. These strategies include:
- hosting Open Houses for their students and families in their service area,
- targeting outreach initiatives across their surrounding communities, and,
- increasing their social media presence to reach a wider community.
III. Supporting student pathways
Addressing basic needs and providing holistic support services
Some institutions experienced a drop in retention and graduation rates over the past five years, resulting from the compounding impact of the hurricanes, earthquakes, fiscal crisis, and pandemic. Given these overlapping challenges, students at these HSIs are graduating at a later time due to the financial and emotional impact they have experienced. To improve retention and graduation, these institutions aim at holistically serving their students by ensuring they are meeting their basic needs.
- provided groceries and meals through food pantries,
- offered additional financial resources and emergency funding to students with high financial need,
- streamlined credit requirements to reduce time to degree, and,
- adapted their mental health services during the pandemic to offer counseling and advising support remotely.
IV. Preparing students for post-completion
Connecting students to graduate level education and Puerto Rico’s workforce
Several of the institutions shared that their students graduate with skill sets and opportunities to enter the labor market and are choosing to leave Puerto Rico to pursue work on the mainland or other countries in Latin America, posing additional challenges for Puerto Rico’s economy and declining workforce. All five HSIs emphasized their commitment to post-completion success through their workforce development and career development opportunities. Some institutions had a specific center dedicated to career services while others embedded these services within academic programs to align the material with students’ fields of study. To further connect students with local employment opportunities, some institutions required that students gain internship experience within their program, which often led to full-time employment after graduation. Institutions also described restructuring or enhancing their graduate programs to provide opportunities for students to deepen their learning and continue their education in Puerto Rico.
Conclusion and Future Efforts
Resilient institutions have an intense commitment to their mission that inspires them to successfully adapt to challenges and create a “new normal.” As colleges and universities across the U.S. continue facing enrollment inconsistencies, demographic shifts, evolving expectations, questions of value, and constraints on their financial support structure, their resilience can determine their sustainability.
This brief is about Puerto Rican HSIs, but also about institutional resilience for post-traditional institutions working to serve post-traditional students in a post-traditional time where the status quo and previous traditional efforts are no longer as effective. These Puerto Rican institutions can be a bellwether of what mainland institutions may also consider to more intentionally serve Latino and other post-traditional learners. And their work is not done. The five institutions we listened to and learned from are still experiencing challenges that continue to redefine and reframe their strategies to fulfill their mission to their students and community.
To learn more from Excelencia’s latest analysis, visit:
 HSIs are defined in federal legislation as accredited, degree-granting public or private nonprofit institutions of higher education with 25% or more total undergraduate Hispanic full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment. Summary of Title V of the Higher Education Act, as amended in 2008.