Supporting students affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria

by Tammy L. Aagard, Ed.D., AACRAO Vice President for Admissions and Enrollment Management and Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Florida

Hurricanes Irma and Maria left Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands devastated and many people without basic necessities like power and running water.  Institutions of higher education were forced to suspend operations until power was restored and faculty were able to resume teaching. As in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, AACRAO members have responded by offering students an opportunity to continue their education while waiting for their home institutions to resume normal operations. These opportunities ranged from in-state tuition to free tuition and room and board.

States like Florida have seen a large migration of Puerto Ricans. It has been reported by the New York Times that 168,000 people have migrated to Florida since the hurricane. An additional 100,000 are booked on flights to Orlando through the end of the year.  Public schools have seen a large influx of school-age children and housing in many areas of Florida is strained.  Florida colleges and universities have stepped up to assist with providing a bridge for post-secondary students.

As an example, the University of Florida has offered an educational continuance program for displaced students.  This program offers students the opportunity to take courses online tuition and fee free. Online courses were chosen because there was capacity available to handle additional students and enrollment did not require students to relocate.  The students are non-degree seeking students and the courses offered are full credit-bearing courses.  This program allows students to take courses that may apply to major requirements, general education or allow students to explore other academic areas.  

While over 250 students have applied to the University of Florida program, many more students are seeking transfer opportunities.  Universities around the country are careful not to lure students away from their home institutions.  The success of higher education in Puerto Rico depends on students returning to study there.  If history repeats, most students will return to their home institutions after one semester. Students selected their home institutions for a reason and they want to continue their education at that institution.

One of the challenges of non-degree programs is that they are not eligible for federal financial aid. Even though many programs are tuition free, students must find a way to subsist while taking these courses.  Other institutions are offering room and board, as well as tuition however some students find it difficult to relocate away from their family and support system.

Institutions in Puerto Rico are beginning to resume operations and some have shifted their term to end in February. This will allow students to complete the fall term.  The rest of the academic calendar will be shifted, as well.

While the number of affected institutions in the US Virgin Islands is fewer than in Puerto Rico, students from these institutions have also been impacted.