With mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension, I arrived in Puerto Rico this summer — excited to see family and friends and relax on the beach; nervous about witnessing firsthand the condition of my homeland nearly a year after Hurricane Maria. In the taxi, I asked the driver about San Juan, El Yunque, El Morro, and the island in general. He said, “The island is recovering. If you drive around, you will see traces of the hurricane and that the trees are green but skinny.” I was puzzled by his comment at first, but amongst the broken traffic lights, missing letters on business signs, roaming chickens, and damaged buildings, there they were—the skinny trees. The force of the 155 mph winds had completely stripped the branches off, leaving the trunks bare. Months later, they had started to show new growth. As I traveled around the island, these “skinny trees” became a symbol of not only the strength of the storm but the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people.

But when I visited University of Puerto Rico’s campus, I noticed the conditions post-Hurricane Maria were abysmal. The deferred maintenance on campus was apparent: I passed a building where a wall was completely gone and there was no sign of plans to demolish or repair. I began to wonder what would happen to the estimated 179,000 Puerto Ricans who had left the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria and how this mass exodus might impact higher education. While there aren’t any current enrollment data from institutions in Puerto Rico, a post-Katrina Louisiana can serve as a template for what may happen in Puerto Rico. Using data from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), I decided to look at enrollment trends for first-time freshman, total undergraduate enrollment and state appropriations pre- and post-hurricane.

Puerto Rico has a rich higher education system with 12 public four-year institutions, 40 four-year not for profit institutions and four technical schools. In the fall of 2016, there were nearly 160,000 undergraduate students enrolled in higher education in Puerto Rico.

Louisiana has 17 public four-year institutions, 10 four-year not for profit institutions and 15 two-year community colleges. In the fall of 2004, the academic year before Hurricane Katrina, there were just over 195,000 undergraduate students enrolled in higher education in Louisiana. Louisiana had higher enrollment and a more robust community college sector compared to Puerto Rico but the footprint of private not for profit institutions is significantly higher with 30 more private not for profit institutions.

Undergraduate Enrollment

Most of the enrollment in Louisiana was concentrated at the public four-year universities with 67 percent of students; nearly 12 percent of students enrolled in Louisiana private not for profit institutions and 21 percent of students enrolled at community colleges. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on undergraduate enrollment was significant, decreasing enrollment by over 20 percent — or nearly 40,000 students. But the data show that decreases were not spread evenly across all sectors. Surprisingly, enrollment at four-year public sector institutions was relatively unchanged post-Katrina with a decrease of 5 percent, or just over 7,000 students. The sector most affected was the private four-year not for profit system with a decrease of nearly 63 percent, representing over 14,000 students who did not enroll at institutions the year following Hurricane Katrina. The decrease at public two-year institutions was as significant with a 43 percent decrease in enrollment, representing over 18,000 students.

Louisiana Enrollment by Sector 2004 Under Grads
2005 Under Grads Enrolled 2004 % Difference 2006 Enrollment 2005-2006 % Difference 2016 Under Grads Enrolled 2006-2016 % Difference
Public 4 Year 131,837 124,777 -5.36% 120,940 -3.08% 120,077 -0.71%
Private 4 Year 22,831 8,457 -62.96% 18,169 114.84% 18,217 0.26%
Public 2 Year 41,878 23,694 -43.42% 38,535 62.64% 64,814 68.20%
Total 196,546 156,928 -20.16% 177,644 13.20% 203,108 14.33%

What would happen to higher education in Puerto Rico if this trend manifested itself on the island? Applying the same enrollment decreases, Puerto Rico would see significant decreases in student enrollment and the private not for profit sector would likely be decimated by the enrollment decreases. The University of Puerto Rico technical college system would see minimal decreases in student enrollment (3,156 and 1,645 respectively) but the not for profit sector would lose enrollment of over 38,000 students. Given the high number of private not for profit institutions with small enrollments, it is likely that there would be closure of smaller institutions not be able to withstand losses of enrollment and revenue.

Puerto Rico Enrollment by Sector 2015-16 Average 2018 Projected Student Decrease 2018 Projected Fall Enrollment 2019 Projected +/- in Fall Enrollment 2019 Enrollment
Public 4 Year 58,926 -3,156 -55,770 -1,715 -54,055 -8.27%
Private 4 Year 103,037 -64,870 38,167 43,831 81,997 -20.42%
Public 2 Year 2,907 -1,262 1,645 1,030 2,675 -7.98%
Total 164,870 -33,233 131,637 17,377 149,014 -9.62%

In the year following Katrina, enrollment at Louisiana’s four-year public universities continued to slide, but the private not for profit and public two-year institutions bounced back with increases of nearly 115 percent and 63 percent respectively. Ten years later, enrollment is 14 percent higher across the state. It is important to note that undergraduate enrollment at public four-year institutions has continued to decrease but this is also due to significant disinvestment by the state. Since 2006, appropriations have decrease by nearly 19 percent, representing nearly $189 million dollars. Enrollment at the private not for profit in Louisiana never recovered back to pre-hurricane levels but the enrollment at the two-year sector has increased by 68 percent, accounting for much of the enrollment growth in the state.

The lesson for Puerto Rico here is clear: They must invest in their colleges and universities to maintain and grow the most important resource the island has, Puerto Rico’s human capital. State disinvestment in the University of Puerto Rico would decimate the sector. If emergency funds from the U.S. Department of Education are not put to good use and Puerto Rico does not invest in this resource, the cost to the island would be significant. Additionally, the strong network of private not for profit institutions must be supported, absent a strong two-year public sector, these institutions provide educational access and to 63 percent of students in higher education in 2015. Should this infrastructure be lost and institutions closed the impact long term would be significant. The lesson from Louisiana shows that investment is necessary to sustain growth, Puerto Rico does not have a system of two-year institutions, invest in the institutions that provide access, support and the supply of professionals to the island.

Higher education in Puerto Rico is at risk of being a skinny tree: the sector has strong roots and green branches. But should the U.S. not make investments in Puerto Rican students, there will no opportunity to regrow the branches and leaves that provide the shade, fruit, and seeds that made Puerto Rico La Isla del Encanto.