'I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue my education." — Alexandra Santiago
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education this week voted to grant in-state tuition rates to evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by Hurricane Maria. Now, Holyoke Community College, the state's 14 other community colleges, state universities and the University of Massachusetts campuses will be able to offer lower tuition rates through at least the spring 2018 semester.
On Wednesday, state education officials visited Springfield, where they introduced several recent evacuees from Puerto Rico who will qualify for the reduced tuition rates. One of them, Alexandra Santiago, had her studies at the University of Puerto Rico interrupted because of Hurricane Maria when her mother, a school teacher, lost her job, and the university is now essentially closed.
"I am grateful to the board for the opportunity to continue my education," said Santiago, who has relocated to Holyoke.
Santiago, who will be studying communications at HCC, was introduced by HCC president Christina Royal, who noted during her remarks that Holyoke is home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States, per capita.
"The devastation left by the hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands has had a powerful impact on the city of Holyoke and Holyoke Community College," Royal said. "Nearly 50 percent of our city's population is Puerto Rican. As a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, 27 percent of HCC's student body is Latino and many of our staff members also come from Puerto Rico or have family there."
To qualify for in-state tuition rates, students must provide documentation of their displacement and meet all the admission and transfer requirements of a public higher education institution. Although students will be still required to pay fees and other education-related expenses, the savings differential - in-state versus out-of-state - can be significant.
An evacuee enrolling at HCC would pay tuition at an annual rate of $4,272 instead of an out-of-state rate of $9,216. While students will continue to remain eligible to participate in federal financial aid, they will not be immediately eligible for state financial assistance. Approximately 50 individuals from Puerto Rico have either enrolled or expressed interest in taking classes at HCC.
"They are seeking ESOL classes, degree or certificate programs and Spanish-language HiSET placement test," Royal said. "We expect that the number will increase in the weeks and months ahead."
Also speaking at the press event at Springfield Technical Community College was Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago, who is a native of Puerto Rico.
"While we expect the number of students who take advantage of the resident tuition rates to be modest, the Board's vote today helps ensure that any student who wants to continue with his or her education here will find it easier to do so," said. "Our goal is to make sure that no one's college dreams are derailed by the roar of a hurricane."
Royal said the support HCC has made available to evacuees extends beyond just financial savings from lower tuition.
"To support students coming from Puerto Rico, HCC has designated staff that work individually with students to connect them and their families with the resources they need," she said. "It is highly personalized and done in collaboration with our community partners."
One such partner is Enlace de Familias, a Holyoke-based nonprofit and state-designated welcome center for Puerto Rican refugees. Enlace offers assistance for people who need to apply for health care, emergency housing, Social Security, FEMA assistance and other social services. HCC itself also has a college guide in Spanish for families, as well as staff who are fluent in Spanish and serve as counselors, mentors, tutors and points of contact between HCC and the larger Latino community.
"Ensuring that the needs of families are met and bringing the family along on the student's educational journey is very important," Royal said. "HCC has been very intentional in creating an environment where Hispanic students can thrive."
The BHE motion and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document can be found at www.mass.edu.
PHOTO: (Thumbnail) HCC student Alexandra Santiago, a recent evacuee from Puerto Rico, talks to a TV reporter during a press conference. (Above) From left to right, Marcos Figueroa, Alexandra Lopez, Esia Santiago, HCC president Christina Royal, Mass. commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, Daniel Flores, and Harold Santiago, HCC Admissions counselor.