In Devastated Puerto Rico, Universities Get Just a Fraction of Storm Aid

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A report by Erica L. Green and Emily Cochrane for the New York Times.

Since Hurricane Maria’s deadly rampage last September, the Education Department has doled out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in disaster relief to colleges and universities supposedly affected by last year’s hurricanes.

Only a fraction has gone to institutions where the storm had its most profound impact: Puerto Rico.

Instead, elite institutions like New York University and the University of Southern California have received aid, as have Liberty University, the Christian school in Virginia run by President Trump’s ally Jerry Falwell Jr., and Grand Canyon University, a Christian, for-profit college in Arizona. Some of those universities have been clear about why they took the money — N.Y.U. used it to enroll Puerto Rican students temporarily displaced by the storm. Others, like Grand Canyon, have refused to explain.

And while Puerto Rico’s share of the aid was roughly in line with states also affected by last year’s hurricanes, like Florida, the devastation is not at all comparable.

“Here, no one was spared,” said Carmen J. Cividanes-Lago, executive director of the Association of Private Colleges and Universities of Puerto Rico (ACUP), a nonprofit member group of private higher education institutions that serve more than 114,000 students in Puerto Rico.

No storm was more powerful or caused more devastation than Hurricane Maria, which left untold deaths and millions in the dark. But despite pleas for more assistance from higher education officials in Puerto Rico, $8.9 million of the $41 million in emergency relief funds disbursed by the Education Department has made its way to the island.

“The department provided just one-fifth of all reallocated campus-based aid to Puerto Rico despite the disproportionate damage to the territory,” Democratic members of the House and Senate wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last month, demanding that the department “act expeditiously to change course” and revise an onerous application process seemingly designed to penalize the island.

Unlike Southern states hit by powerful storms last fall, Puerto Rico was blanketed coast to coast by a hurricane that was at least four times its size. Colleges and universities in Texas and Florida reported minimal damage and rebounded quickly. They could also rely on the resources of neighboring institutions not in the path of the storms.

In Puerto Rico, some academic and administrative buildings at colleges and universities were completely destroyed; wooden panels still cover windows and block passageways to molding, stench-filled rooms. Structural damage has run up such astronomical insurance costs that institutions cannot afford the 2 percent deductibles.

The storm ravaged an already struggling American commonwealth whose economy cannot employ students who rely on jobs to pay their school expenses. More than 230,000 students — a large portion of whom qualify for federal aid — were attending more than 100 higher education institutions on the island. Hundreds fled for a chance to complete their degrees.

Others “have stayed without their families because they wanted to continue their studies, but they’re nervous,” Ms. Cividanes-Lago said. “We’re extremely fragile. We’re very vulnerable.”

Now, as the Education Department prepares to dispense another $175 million in aid to higher education institutions, members of Congress and education advocates are pleading for a change in course. Lawmakers urged the department to abandon an application that is estimated to take 40 hours — and is not offered in Spanish. They say it would be too burdensome for institutions on an island that still lacks access to water and electricity, let alone functional technology.

“We believe that the department’s proposal to require applicants to fill out immense amounts of paperwork for disaster relief funds is yet another example of the Trump administration’s failure to prioritize Puerto Rico,” said the letter, drafted by Representatives Nydia M. Velázquez and José E. Serrano, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, all Democrats of New York.

A New York Times analysis of the $41 million in total aid disbursements made by the department shows that $8.9 million went to institutions in Puerto Rico, $4 million went to Texas, $8 million to Florida and $53,915 to the Virgin Islands.

Congressional leaders and Puerto Rico higher education advocates say that is not nearly enough. Some pointed to a Monday announcement from Ms. DeVos on disaster aid to primary and secondary schools to illustrate this point. The department said it would provide $693 million in disaster aid to K-12 school systems affected by natural disasters, with the vast majority, $589 million, going to Puerto Rico.

“You can see that those are more in line with the need of the areas, so that begs the question, Why is the proportion so different in Puerto Rico when it came to funds for higher education?” said Enrique Fernández-Toledo, director of the Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

In November, the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities submitted a request to Ms. DeVos on behalf of 65 of Puerto Rico’s private and public universities to at least double the island’s total allocation of work-study grants to help students work their way through college. Only 5 percent of students on the island who qualify for federal need-based aid received federal work-study funding, but more than 80 percent of students work part-time jobs to help pay their way.

After the hurricane, those jobs vanished. The proposed fund would have helped make up lost wages for all students with new tutoring jobs and hurricane relief work.

The request was not granted.

Last fall, Congress granted Ms. DeVos the authority to reroute federal funds for disaster relief through the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Education Relief Act of 2017.

In January, shortly after Ms. DeVos announced the department had granted its first round of funding, Florida’s senators, Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, urged the secretary to make public the list of schools that received assistance and the methodology used to determine the funding.

In March, the department released the data. Five Puerto Rico institutions did top the list of those that received the largest sums, but the island’s schools accounted for only 13 of the 41 institutions that received more than $100,000. On the mainland, the schools that received the largest disbursements — $200,000 or more — were not in areas in the path of the hurricane.

They were N.Y.U., Southern California, Southern New Hampshire University, Grand Canyon University and Liberty University.

And while the department “strongly urged” institutions to award the money to students affected by the hurricane, it did not require them to.

Department officials said the disbursements were based on a statutory formula, authorized by Congress.

“If members are unhappy with the allocation, then they should change the language in the statute and we’d be happy to oblige,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department.

Institutions were deemed eligible if they participated in the two financial aid programs from which the money was dispensed, or they accepted more than 20 students from affected areas.

N.Y.U., which received $264,850, led a public campaign to take in students from Puerto Rico and enrolled about 70 students. They were required to pay tuition to their home universities in Puerto Rico, and had virtually all costs covered while attending N.Y.U. The students are expected to leave when the semester ends.

“We are very sensitive to concerns that the universities in Puerto Rico have about skimming students who were important to their own academic mission,” said John Beckman, a spokesman for the university.

Grand Canyon University, which received about $239,000, would not say how many affected students were enrolled. A Liberty University official said the school did not count out the number of students who benefited from its $200,000 award, but officials said the university financially supported students, mainly from Florida, in a number of ways after the hurricane.

Southern New Hampshire said it had more than 11,000 students from the affected states, about 50 of whom were from Puerto Rico, and planned to return any unused funds to the Education Department.

The University of Florida disbursed its first federal aid allocation of $77,453 to 38 students, said Rick Wilder, the director of student financial affairs. The remainder will be reserved for returning students who demonstrate need next year.

“We’re always excited to get additional funding for any needy students,” Mr. Wilder said.

In the coming months, the Education Department will award $100 million in additional emergency funding to colleges and universities and their students in areas directly affected by hurricanes and wildfires, and $75 million to help defray costs for those that took in students from the affected areas.

But congressional leaders wrote last month that the voluminous application, which requires two applications and a detailed accounting of expenses and funding received thus far, would place on Puerto Rico a “significant and unnecessary burden that was never intended by Congress.”

Several parties protested the department’s application process, including the American Federation of Teachers and Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, the president of Queens College in New York.

Lawmakers noted that the application process for this round of funding was markedly different from the other disaster relief disbursements of similar scale. In 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, institutions in Louisiana and Mississippi were able to gain access to $190 million in congressionally appropriated funds without an application.

And they noted of the most recent disbursements: “It is unclear why institutions located in the disaster areas and experienced greater harm are being subjected to disproportionate hurdles relative to institutions that experienced no damage at all.”

Education department officials said the current process was used in 2009 for natural disasters. They said they have not historically administered the application in Spanish and would not do so now so they can administer aid as quickly as possible.

Lillian Negrón Colón, president of the Universidad Central de Bayamón and president of ACUP, wrote that the department’s application “constitutes an overwhelming task at a most critical point.”

“In just a few months, the island will be entering its 2018 hurricane season,” she said, “and our people, including us who are trying to keep institutions of higher learning operational, are still struggling.”

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