Foreign in a Domestic Sense:
Puerto Rico’s College Admissions Process

By: Roberto Jiménez Rivera

Roberto Jimenez Social Media
During high school, my primary goal was to leave Puerto Rico and go to college in one of the fifty states. Having done well in school, I felt ready to tackle this – the biggest challenge I could think of at the time. My parents encouraged me to pursue this dream but had no idea how to go about it or whether we could afford it. The guidance counselor at my small-town Catholic school had little experience with the traditional U.S. admissions process, so over many months I scoured the internet trying to determine where and how to apply, and most importantly, how to pay for it. Somehow, I made it to the University of Michigan, and became the first person in my family to enroll in a university on the mainland right out of high school.

For the average Puerto Rican, applying to out-of-state universities is significantly harder than it is for U.S. citizens elsewhere. One major reason is that most schools on the island do not encourage students to take the SAT or ACT, instead opting to use the Puerto Rico-specific Prueba de Aptitud Académica (PAA)—known locally as “el College Board,” after the company that owns and administers it.

The vast majority of colleges and universities on the mainland do not accept the PAA. By creating a parallel college admissions system, the College Board inadvertently created a status quo that precludes mainland universities as options for Puerto Rican high schoolers.

 What is “el College Board” And where did it come from?

In the early 1960s, the College Board explored the possibility of developing a Spanish-language version of the SAT to expand their services to Latin America. Puerto Rico became the ideal location to serve as College Board’s base of operations given its American-style political, social, and economical infrastructure.

The College Board developed the Spanish SAT in 1964, but its efforts to align it to the English SAT and use it for U.S. admissions failed due to difficulties with validity testing and low numbers of test-takers. Instead, College Board used it to reform admissions programs and policies across Latin America. Puerto Rico adopted the newly-renamed PAA as its national college admissions entrance examination, and shortly thereafter the test came to be popularly known as “el College Board.”

Puerto Rico’s own admissions system

Around 30,000 students graduate from high school in Puerto Rico each year, and almost all of them take the PAA. By contrast, about 3,000 Puerto Rican students took the SAT in 2017. That same year, around 43% of graduating seniors in the U.S. took the SAT, and over 50% took the ACT. While the two groups overlap, we can assume a large majority of graduating seniors on the mainland has taken either test, whereas in Puerto Rico only 10% of graduates have.

This has a huge impact on the recruitment of Puerto Ricans to mainland universities. These institutions, elite universities in particular, use SAT and ACT data to target and recruit top students from rural or poor communities. While colleges can reach these communities in the mainland, they miss out on those who live in Puerto Rico because they have not taken these tests.

Puerto Rico’s admissions process is also different because universities only use a student’s PAA score and high school GPA to evaluate applicants. At the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) system, these two factors are combined into an academic index that determines to which campuses and academic departments a student will be admitted. No recommendation letters or essays are required, and students do not need to submit a list of extracurricular activities or demonstrate leadership qualities. It is a far cry from the holistic or “whole person” evaluations students in the fifty states have come to expect.

Only 3% of Puerto Ricans study outside Puerto Rico

Because the Puerto Rican system is so different, the U.S. admissions process is foreign to students and staff at most Puerto Rican schools. As a result, few get their degrees outside the island—in fact, Puerto Ricans choose out-of-state universities at a much lower rate than students from any other U.S. state or territory.

Each year, about 25% of graduating high school students leave their home state to attend college. Even territories with similar geographic limitations, like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii, send roughly half of their graduates to institutions beyond their borders. In Puerto Rico, however, that number hovers around just 3%.

Two important factors also deter graduates from leaving, even if they are aware of opportunities outside of Puerto Rico: the language barrier and the financial commitment.

Two important factors also deter graduates from leaving, even if they are aware of opportunities outside of Puerto Rico: the language barrier and the financial commitment.

According to Census data, only about 30% of Puerto Ricans of all ages speak English “very well” or better, which presents a challenge for students looking to attend an English-speaking university. There is hope, however, as this number is likely higher for current K-12 students, and test score data shows these numbers are on a slight upward trend in recent years. Puerto Rico Department of Education data shows about 45% of public school students are at a proficient or advanced level in English, which is a sign for optimism.

Income levels in Puerto Rico are also alarmingly low. The median household income for 2016 was roughly $20,000, about half that of the poorest state, Mississippi. Fortunately, at the UPR, the cost per credit hour is still only $47. The cost of a semester outside the island, let alone a full degree, is impractical for most. For this reason, it is unrealistic to expect most Puerto Ricans to attend universities without strong financial aid programs.

Clearly, something is different about Puerto Rico. Even if the English proficiency data is overly optimistic and not an accurate reflection of reality, and the financial barrier is too steep for many, 3% is still a far lower level of representation than we should expect in campuses across the mainland. While these two factors should not be dismissed, the parallel admissions system that developed in the island is a tremendous barrier that deters many students from even exploring other options.

Who are the native Puerto Ricans in mainland universities?

Each year, fewer than 1,000 high school graduates from Puerto Rico enroll in U.S. universities outside the territory. The vast majority are likely elite private school students.

Private schools such as Baldwin School, TASIS Dorado, and San Ignacio, routinely send their top students to the Ivy League and other top U.S. universities. Baldwin School, famous for being the most expensive on the island, boasts on their school profile that over the last five years, 79% of their graduates went to college in the U.S mainland.

Overall, 17 of the 25 universities that enrolled the most students from Puerto Rico between 2012-2016 are among the top 150 on the latest US News rankings. This means the few who do leave are enrolling in some of the best institutions of higher education in our country.

Why does this matter?

Defining Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States in the Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell, Justice Edward E. White famously described the island as “foreign in a domestic sense.” The admissions process that developed in Puerto Rico is domestic in nature, but foreign in practice. It has developed into a second-class system that mirrors the second-class status of Puerto Rico within the United States. The system is unequal because the opportunities presented to students across the island are not the same as the ones easily available to high school students across the fifty states.

The UPR system has faced, and continues to face, major problems due to the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. The system’s budget was slashed by 12% ($187 million) in 2017, the latest in a series of cuts, which have resulted in multiple student protests over the past few decades. While their goal is to fight rising tuition levels, these protests are disruptive to student learning and can lead to students being unable to complete their semester courses on time, resulting in delayed graduations. In extreme cases, it can result in revoked job offers because the student doesn’t complete their degree by the job’s expected start date.

Even if these problems did not exist, there are still well-documented benefits to attending an elite university, in particular for Black and Latino students, and for those with one or two parents who are not college-educated. One study shows a substantial boost in lifetime earnings for students with these characteristics. Another points to their increased likelihood of attending graduate school.

Instead, the well-educated, upper-class families of Puerto Rico overwhelmingly reap these benefits by attending elite U.S. universities, thus perpetuating local class divides. A majority of Puerto Rico’s governors, Resident Commissioners (non-voting members of Congress), and Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico completed their undergraduate studies at mainland colleges. While you do not need a degree from a mainland university to be powerful, it certainly helps.

Lastly, and importantly, this system further alienates Puerto Ricans from the rest of U.S. society. We would never set up a system that created significant hurdles for students in New Hampshire to get an education in Ohio. We can also easily imagine a proud Mississippi resident pursuing college in another state even if her goal is to return home afterward and be a leader in her community. Doesn’t Puerto Rico deserve the same access to these resources?

It is simply a matter of principle that, because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they should not have to face extra barriers to access mainland educational opportunities.

It is simply a matter of principle that, because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they should not have to face extra barriers to access mainland educational opportunities.

What should be done?

Stories like mine are rare in Puerto Rico, but they shouldn’t be. I believe the best way to combat this inequality of opportunity is through a combined effort from the College Board, colleges and universities on the mainland, and the Puerto Rican government.

First, College Board must make PAA data available to universities in the mainland. They should work with admissions offices to share how they can incorporate this data into their recruitment strategies.

With this knowledge, colleges and universities must devise new ways of targeting Puerto Rican students for admission. Students would still need to take the SAT or ACT, and both testing agencies can help ensure their tests remain accessible to all students. This could result in an overall increase of Puerto Ricans attending mainland universities, but more importantly, it would introduce a broader geographic and socioeconomic group of Puerto Ricans to these institutions.

Second, the Puerto Rico Department of Education must develop an initiative to educate guidance counselors and students about mainland U.S. college admissions. This should include information about standardized tests, the other admissions requirements that come with a “whole person” admissions process, financial aid, and the benefits and drawbacks of going to college outside the island. It must also make high schoolers aware of the difficulty of being away from home, and the challenges of moving to a system in a completely different language.

Instead of helping Puerto Ricans gain access to opportunities available on the U.S. mainland, the College Board used Puerto Rico as a gateway to establish itself in the Latin American market. This had the unfortunate side effect of segregating Puerto Rican higher education from the rest of the country, making it too easy for students not to consider pursuing their undergraduate education off the island.

As Puerto Rico faces a crisis due to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, more students will consider leaving the island, and their school guidance counselors need additional support in helping them navigate the U.S. system. The Puerto Rican government must seize this opportunity to encourage students to get a solid education outside the island, then return home and become leaders in their community—allowing them to capitalize on a more global and diverse perspective in order to propel Puerto Rico and its economy into the future.

Roberto Jiménez Rivera attended the University of Michigan, where he completed bachelor’s degrees in Business and Informatics, and a master’s degree in Higher Education. After finishing his studies, he moved to Massachusetts and now works at Harvard University. Roberto currently lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife, Sarah. You can reach him through Twitter or email.