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Apr 20, 1:06 PM EDT

Board votes to double tuition at Puerto Rico university



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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- A majority of federal control board members voted Friday to more than double tuition at Puerto Rico's largest public university despite heavy criticism the increase will make higher education unaffordable.

Six of seven members also voted to cut benefits at the University of Puerto Rico and consolidate 11 campuses that serve more than 58,000 students on an island mired in an 11-year recession.

"The (university) will no longer be able to afford its status quo operating model," said Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the board created by U.S. Congress.

Government and university officials vowed not to implement certain measures, a day after the board also moved to institute a 10 percent cut to Puerto Rico's public pension system, which is facing nearly $50 billion in liabilities. Jaresko said those cuts are needed because the system is running out of money.

The university fiscal plan approved Friday calls for increasing the undergraduate cost per credit from $57 to $115 by next year, and then to $157 by fiscal year 2023.

Darrell Hillman, interim president for the University of Puerto Rico, told radio station WKAQ that he had proposed $75 for next year and up to $140 within five years.

"This is like amputating an organ that is vital to the island of Puerto Rico," he said, noting that families are still struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. "There are a lot of problems with businesses, with jobs...We don't want to hit the pocketbooks of Puerto Ricans and students."

Board members approved a 10 percent cut in operating costs, called for a need-based scholarship policy and increased various fees including graduation rights from $27 to $80.

Javier Cordoba, vice president of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, rejected the fiscal plan and said he worries about the consolidation of campuses, among other things.

"We believe a lot of students will not be able to pursue their university studies," he said, referring to the possibility that many will now be forced to travel long distances to a campus.

Cordoba said that cutting benefits would make it harder for the University of Puerto Rico to attract qualified professors.

A majority of board members also approved toll increases and a 15 percent reduction in personnel costs at Puerto Rico's Highways and Transportation Authority. Once again, government officials rejected those measures.

"I know it will produce more money, but it will put more burden on the citizens of Puerto Rico," said Carlos Contreras, the agency's secretary.

The plan states that an average 5 cent annual toll increase would generate an additional $77 million, noting that the agency's expenses will exceed capital revenues by nearly $500 million in the next six years. It also envisions a $3 billion capital program and aims to reduce traffic and outsource projects, noting that construction cost overruns have been as high as 37 percent per year.

The agency is $6 billion in debt and struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which caused more than $650 million in damage to its infrastructure.

The board says that the island's transportation system has some of the worst fatality rates, pavement conditions and congestion in comparison with U.S. states.

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