• The San Juan Daily Star

Toward sustainable higher learning

Prof. Belinda I. Reyes, Ph.D.

CNE analysis explores connection between post-secondary education & economic development in Puerto Rico

By The Star Staff

The San Juan-based think tank Center for a New Economy (CNE) announced Wednesday that it is incorporating the topic of higher or post-secondary education into its work agenda with Professor Belinda I. Reyes, Ph.D., as a visiting fellow.

The CNE Review edition published Wednesday contains her first analysis, titled “Investing in Ourselves: Post-Secondary Education for a Sustainable and Equitable Recovery.”

Reyes is an associate professor in the Department of Latina and Latino Studies at San Francisco State University and is an expert in economics. Her work explores the implications of social and demographic changes in public policy, including education, immigration, and the social and economic progress of Latinx in the United States. In her analysis for the CNE Review, she explores some of the connections between higher education and economic development, specifically what can be done to provide young people with better opportunities in Puerto Rico. Reyes raises a series of questions about post-secondary education in Puerto Rico.

For the post-secondary educational system to have an impact on growth, she said it must have a sustainable budget and accompany major investment in infrastructure and housing in Puerto Rico, as is expected by the influx of federal funds. But there are also several reforms that need to take place within the educational system, she said.

The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) needs to be divorced from the political process, Reyes said. Higher learning in Puerto Rico cannot be tied to election cycles since it affects the institution’s capacity to execute long-term structural change if its leadership is interrupted every four years and there is no internal structure to give continuity to the plan, she said.

In addition to a sustainable budget, a governance structure that ensures the educational system’s quality, continuity, and independence is needed. The UPR, as well as other institutions of higher learning in the U.S., is experiencing declines in enrollment, which translates into lower budgets. COVID-19 has worsened the situation that has resulted in a 60% reduction in enrollment at the UPR Río Piedras Campus.

“But at the same time, only 39% of the adults older than 25 in Puerto Rico have an associate degree or higher and the access to degrees is very unequal. Most Puerto Ricans do not complete postsecondary education, which results in lower productivity and wages,” Reyes said. “How do we restructure the system to meet the educational needs of our population? By understanding the regional educational needs on the island, paying close attention to issues of equity, and developing plans for post-secondary education informed by research and community dialogue, we can link education to regional recovery to help foster sustainable growth on the island.”

But without a fair agreement on the payment of the debt from the Financial Oversight and Management Board, “the future of our children and their children would be foregone,” Reyes said.

“Not only will this impact the island for generations to come, but it will also increase the trauma people are experiencing and the immigration to the United States,” she said. “At least the diaspora counts with a voice and vote to pressure the U.S. Congress to finally give us the opportunity to prosper.”

The report referred to the budget cuts on education. The oversight board reduced the UPR system’s General Fund Income by 48% in five years, from $911 million in 2017 to $466 million in 2022. It is proposing to fix the General Fund Income at $500 million for the next five years. But it does not rule out the possibility of further cuts after five years.

The oversight board hopes to offset the cuts with increased tuition, reductions in administration, freezing on promotions, consolidation and pension reform.

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