Thursday, August 17, 2017

[Editorial] Killing Us Softly With Their Song

By on June 2, 2017

The University of Puerto Rico (UPR)—an institution of higher learning that was once an essential piece in the New Deal puzzle to raise the standard of living of all Puerto Ricans—has lost its luster through a confluence of interests that have radically departed from its original mission. The culprits come from both sides of the fence.

Yes, there was a time when education was touted as a basic human right planted in Puerto Rico’s Constitution when it was drafted, ratified by the U.S. Congress and voted on by the people. To fulfill its mission, the UPR is a recipient of general fund income and certain special allocations.

But the myth of abundance underpinning the free college movement ran into trouble with untenable expenditures—largely unfunded pensions and more campuses per square mile than could be justified—has led to the demand for austerity in a debt crisis that threatens to blow our institutions to kingdom come. This is not the first time that an economic and fiscal crisis claims higher education as collateral damage.

The cost-free higher education touted by New York City’s Board of Education in the late 19th century was relinquished nearly a century after its implementation when that city went through its financial debacle in the mid-1970s. The recent book “Fear City” by Kim Phillips Fein explains how the concept of the free university movement crashed when it ran into headwinds of austerity. A tuition-free higher education was untenable given New York’s near bankruptcy, reports Phillips Fein.

In a scene reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s recently denied bailout request—the Daily News ran at the time a cover story with the big bold headline—“Ford to New York: Drop Dead.” Fast forward to 2017 and you might replace the words Ford with Trump and New York with Puerto Rico. Yes, now Puerto Rico is broke and the concept of the state school that costs next to nothing is under siege. The upward mobility of people who could otherwise not afford that education is under threat.

“In 2015, people in the United States who had no more than a high-school diploma earned about $35,600 [a year] on average…those with an associate degree from a two-year college made $44,000 [annually] and graduates from four-year colleges earned an average of $65,500 [a year],” according to a report on the state of higher education in the New York Times. In Puerto Rico, the salaries and jobs available for those with similar educational backgrounds pale by comparison.

And although there is a whole set of socioeconomic variables affecting that jobs equation, there is no controversy here over the benefits of affordable higher education for a society and the positive impact on the standard of living.

The conflict here—as is true across the spectrum of Promesa mathematics—is that the supporting data to the various fiscal plans have not been made public. People become upset when the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) holds pro-forma press conferences with pro-forma profit and loss statements chock-full of footnotes that assert the calculations are based on unaudited financial statements subject to change.

Fiscal oversight board Chairman José B. Carrión (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

This newspaper does not believe the “shuttered gates” tactic will help students and those professors who are against massive cuts to the UPR budget achieve their objective of muddling toward frugality. Instead, they are allowing the FOMB to free itself of the intense discipline of verification and the accountability for hard choices based on hard evidence that is required in their supposed quest for structural balance. As this newspaper was going to press, a team of professors from the UPR Mayagüez campus, along with several economists, submitted a proposal that they claim will guide the university system to financial stability. That plan deserves consideration.

Puerto Rico can neither afford to keep the public university system as it is currently structured, nor accept a $512 million cut—asi, porque sí—when the upward mobility of a people is thwarted. Throttling the human capital so essential for Puerto Rico’s return to sustainable economic development is too high a price to pay.

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