Felicity Huffman, the actress at the center of the 2019 college admissions scandal, is back in the news, this time with an apology. In an ABC News interview recently, Huffman apologized to the “students and the families that sacrifice and work really hard to get to where they are going legitimately.”
I am surrounded by these students and families every day. I work with students in Puerto Rico, who have far fewer resources on average than mainland students when it comes to accessing higher education.
That Huffman and the other affluent parents charged in that scandal thought their students needed a leg up is a testament to how competitive the race to college can seem for families of any background. However, affluent families have a greater advantage when it comes to supporting their children’s path to U.S. colleges. This is especially true of SAT test coaching and college application support.
Most students in Puerto Rico don’t have that kind of support. In a U.S. territory with more than 3.2 million American citizens, more than half of the children, 57%, live in poverty compared to 16.3% in the rest of the country. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would be the poorest, twice as impoverished as Mississippi. Parents here can’t afford the coaches, tutors and mentors to scaffold their children’s path to higher education.
Students are not getting the support in school, either. While many schools on the mainland have college counselors, Puerto Rico has virtually none. After years of economic crisis and natural disasters, many Puerto Rican schools are underfunded, overcrowded, understaffed and lack basic facilities and resources. The island has closed 44% of its public schools since 2007. With struggling schools and overworked teachers, students here are not getting a curriculum aligned with the SAT standards and expectations.
Consider a recent study from a group of Harvard-based economists. According to the study’s data, 30% of students from rich families scored a 1300 or higher on the SAT; 5% of middle-class students did. Most striking is that almost no students from poor families scored that high.
The study also showed that for poor students, only one in five took the SAT at all. That reflects what we see on the island. Opportunities to take the test are scarce. Puerto Rico has limited testing centers and offers few testing dates throughout the year. These centers are often far from where students live, requiring them to travel long distances and incur transportation costs.
It’s not that we don’t have bright, talented, motivated students. I work with a population of high-achieving young adults who just need a little support and coaching to navigate the college application process so they can access a school they are fully capable of attending. Most of these students have none of the outside support most of their mainland counterparts would, but by leveling the playing field even a little, we have seen them attend and thrive in the country’s best universities.
Many of these students then return to Puerto Rico, using the networks and know-how they’ve gained in college to help improve conditions on the island. To break the cycle of poverty here, we need more of that. While addressing the root causes and consequences of poverty in Puerto Rico, we must provide more support and assistance to students who aspire to pursue higher education.
José Cruz, a Harvard graduate, is the executive director of the Kinesis Foundation, a Puerto Rico-based college access and scholarship program for talented students with financial need.