When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and shut its colleges, few institutions outside Louisiana saw an impact greater than that at the University of Houston.
By virtue of Houston's proximity to New Orleans, hundreds of students enrolled at the university -- and the university also opened its campus to the law school of Loyola University New Orleans, which set up shop  at Houston's law school. Many Loyola administrators also relocated to the campus.
So you might think that when it came time for the U.S. Education Department to give out assistance  to colleges that took in Katrina refugee students, Houston would fare well. Actually the university is getting $150,000 -- or $161 for each of the 930 aid-eligible students from New Orleans who enrolled. Of course, Houston only asked for $150,000 -- even though it believes its Katrina-related expenses are at least $4 million and probably more.
Head north to Massachusetts, and Harvard University (whose $25 billion endowment dwarfs those of all other colleges) is doing much better with the program. Harvard asked for $500,000 from the special $10 million fund created by Congress. Harvard is getting $35,064. But since Harvard enrolled only 27 aid-eligible students, that works out to $1,298 per student.
Does it seem odd that Harvard would get more per student than Houston? The key is that Harvard asked for a lot -- the institutions that aren't doing well are those that were modest in their requests.
A few institutions actually did something that doesn't happen a lot in Washington -- they knowingly passed up a chance to get money from the program, thinking that institutions more directly affected deserved a larger share of the $10 million. Princeton offered spots last semester to 23 undergraduates and 5 graduate students from New Orleans, but decided not to seek any of the $10 million. "We needed no other incentive to open our doors to the displaced students than to fill their need for a save haven," said a spokeswoman.
Brown University -- which took in 59 undergraduates and 27 graduate students -- also opted not to take anything from the federal government. Brown has actually gone further and provided direct assistance to some of those students, and has been working especially to help restore Dillard University, the alma mater of Brown's president, Ruth Simmons, and an institution whose campus was particularly hard hit by Katrina.
Other institutions -- including some without Ivy-sized endowments -- also decided not to seek the federal funds. Susan Murphy, associate dean and director of enrollment and financial services at the University of San Francisco, said that her institution based its decision on the purpose of the program: to help those most hurt by Katrina. Murphy noted that the students who enrolled at San Francisco were generally not from New Orleans, but were from California (indeed many colleges typically enrolled students from New Orleans colleges who were not living in Louisiana prior to college). Since the federal aid was supposed to be for those "specifically affected by the disaster," Murphy said it didn't seem appropriate to apply for a share of the funds.
Suzanne Day, director of federal relations at Harvard, said she didn't know if the university considered leaving the money for other institutions. She said that she thought the request was handled in a routine way, looking at how many aid-eligible students had enrolled. (About 130 Katrina students in total enrolled at Harvard, but most of them were not eligible for federal aid.)
Harvard is certainly not alone in noting that more students enrolled than were aid eligible. Boston University, for example, asked for $5 million -- more money than the sums sought by any institution outside Louisiana. And the runner up was Boston College, which requested $4 million. Between the two of them, they enrolled 35 aid-eligible students.
Colin Riley, a spokesman for BU, said that the request came from looking at all students from New Orleans who were allowed to enroll while paying tuition only to their home institutions, not to Boston. That total was 318, not the 19 aid-eligible students, he said.
Boston-area institutions were not the only ones with high hopes for the program. American University -- which is recovering from a scandal  over the lavish benefits and entertainment bills racked up by its former president -- also asked for a half-million dollars from the fund. American enrolled 11 aid-eligible students from New Orleans.
In terms of how the Education Department gave out the $10 million, institutions like BU that aimed high did well, while those with more modest requests did not. The Education Department based its calculations of college grants by dividing the funds available by the number of aid-eligible students enrolled at the various colleges. Institutions with fewer than 10 eligible students were excluded and 99 colleges will soon receive grants. (Another 60 applied and were turned down, primarily because they didn't meet the minimum number of students.)
But there was another part of the calculations, too. In November, the department asked colleges how much they needed for taking in Katrina students. The department ignored the fact that Harvard requested more than 14 times what it was later determined to be eligible for, and Boston University requested more than 200 times what it was later determined to be eligible for.
But if you requested less than what you were eligible for, that number stood. "We try never to give an institution more than it asks for in any program, so that was the upper limit," said Dan Madzelan, director of forecasting and policy analysis for the Education Department's Office of Postsecondary Education. Madzelan said that the actual distribution of funds was then formulaic. "It was as simple as that," he said. And indeed colleges that didn't make low requests did generally receive just under $1,300 per student.
Given the way the money was distributed, colleges that would have been eligible but stayed out did in fact provide a little extra money for other institutions.
While the University of Houston example is particular notable, it was not the only institution to make a modest request and to lose out because of it. California State University -- East Bay requested and will receive $18,000 for the 59 aid-eligible students it enrolled. But the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which enrolled only 50 aid-eligible students, requested $300,000 and will receive just under $65,000. Nicholls State University, in Louisiana, took in 504 students from New Orleans and will receive only $167,750 -- about one-fourth of the per-student payment it would have received had it requested a few million.
Donald Foss, the provost at Houston, said he believed that the information from the Education Department had been unclear and that his university would not have defined its needs as only $150,000 otherwise. While he declined to comment on the requests of other institutions, he said that "we're uncomfortable" with the way the allocations were given to Houston. "We believe that there was in effect a clerical error in the way they asked for the information," he said.
Cynthia J. Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said that she had also heard of some frustrations from colleges that they had been unable to document which of their Katrina students were aid eligible, since many of the relevant records were under water in New Orleans.
The real problem, she said, is that there just isn't enough money period. Littlefield was involved in efforts to lobby Congress for money for institutions in the Gulf Coast and for those that took in displaced students, and she said that what was appropriated doesn't come close to meeting the need. For the colleges that took in students, she said, "there was sympathy, but it wasn't a priority."