Puerto Rican Student Conference

Speech of the former President of the University of Puerto Rico
Mr. Antonio García Padilla

March 31, 2012- 1:00 p.m.
Yale University


Let me, thank the organizers first for hosting this forum, second for having me here; and, third for assigning to me such an easy, simple topic: Ideas for fixing Puerto Rico’s k-12 system, maintaining access and redefining the role of the government in this field.

When I received the invitation, I thought that the assignment was not doable. Until I learned that I had ten full minutes. Then, I immediately changed my mind and rushed to say yes.

  1. Puerto Ricans, as we know, hold different attitudes towards education at the elementary, middle and high school levels and education at the university level. For former, Puerto Ricans tend to prefer private institutions; for higher education, the first choice tends to be the public system. It is not only an issue of costs. Families that can finally afford somehow the price of private schools are willing to make great sacrifices in order to give their children the best possible opportunities. For higher education, the choice of preference is the state public system.
  2. The culture of the two system is different. In private schools students are clearly encouraged to pursue a university career. The atmosphere prevailing in public schools is not as clear. I never heard a school counselor in a private school talk about the need to supply the demand for craftsmen, carpenters, bricklayers, and technicians. For some reason, that seemed to be a discourse reserved for the public school classrooms.

Not surprisingly, while three fourths of private school seniors apply to the UPR, only one fourth of their public school peers do the same. Actually, 82 percent of the Island’s public schools place less than twenty percent of their seniors in the University of Puerto Rico programs.

  1. Beyond that culture, the is indeed a quality issue. And since it is only through the public school system that students from families with socioeconomic disadvantages have access to education. The quality of the public school system leaves many of these families without the future that educations opens for their wealthier counterparts. Indeed, while students coming from families with annual income exceeding 50,000 dollars tend to qualify for 90 percent of the programs offered by the University of Puerto Rico, their counterparts from families with annual income averaging under 75 hundred dollars, tend to qualify for less than 25 percent of the programs offered.
  2. But in my view, the limiting culture that prevails in the public school system and the issue of quality are very much interrelated. Thus, one good bet for producing change, without further investments, is in my view to strengthen the interaction between the public school system and the University of Puerto Rico. The outlook for students with socio-economic disadvantages must change. These students, just like their wealthier counterparts, must see themselves engaged in an academic progression that starts in grade school and ends not in junior high, not with a high school diploma, but with a college degree. They have the talent. In the Fall of 2008, all public school seniors were required to take the SAT”s for universities in Puerto Rico, free of charge, in school time. The forecasts anticipated disaster; the outcomes were extraordinary. Seven thousand additional students showed up for the tests, a good 35 percent increase from the previous year. That notwithstanding, to everybody’s surprise, the average results in all areas – including mathematical reasoning — did not decrease in any significant way. We have before us an immense talent pool that must be untapped without further delay.
  3. The University of Puerto Rico and the public school system should adopt a common agenda. On the University side, significant steps must be taken. The quality of the teacher training programs must be strengthened. There is no reason why, in this day, Puerto Rico allow for unaccredited programs to operate.

Likewise, cumbersome admissions processes that deter some students from applying to college must be left behind. In fact, the University of Puerto Rico current admissions system – applications driven – should be abandoned in favor of an invitation driven scheme capable of conveying to students in the public system that they truly belong in higher education.

  1. Let me try to put the agenda in terms of a simple challenge: The misrepresentation gap of public school graduates in the University of Puerto Rico system, is about 20 percent. That is to say, while public schools host 80% of the Puerto Rico high school seniors, only 60 % of the UPR students come from public schools. If we can cut that gap in half, to 10% in this coming decade, we would impact significantly Puerto Rico’s education profile, with many benefits for schools – public and private –, for private universities and for the public university system; all this with many benefits for Puerto Rico.
  2. There are many strategies already available to meet that goal. And many more can come from conferences like this. If we succeed, we can then have a celebratory meeting here at Yale, in this same room, in 2022.

Thanks again for this initiative and thanks for having me here.