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The University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, after Hurricane Maria

Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Frustrations have mounted in recent weeks among members of Congress and advocates for Puerto Rico over bureaucratic obstacles they say may prevent colleges and universities on the island from getting emergency relief approved by lawmakers in February.

The Department of Education last week posted an application to get part of $100 million in emergency assistance for institutions hit by natural disasters last year. Another $75 million was made available to colleges outside affected areas that took on displaced students.

Puerto Rico was hit hard by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma last year, and colleges and universities on the island suffered serious damage from the impact of those storms.

Despite pleas from lawmakers, though, the application won’t be made available in Spanish. And the process will require a both a pre-application and full application on top of detailed accounting of estimates for expenses covered by insurance, federal agencies or donors.

A department spokeswoman said the process was designed to speed the delivery of emergency relief. Lawmakers warned that the process showed a failure to prioritize Puerto Rico, however.

A report last week from The New York Times, meanwhile, showed just a fifth of campus-based student aid reallocated in response to natural disasters last year will go to Puerto Rican institutions. Some mainland institutions, among them Liberty University and Grand Canyon University, which were not directly impacted by the natural disasters but serve students from affected areas, received significant new funding.

Enrique Fernández-Toledo, director of Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, said after the release of the new emergency aid application that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was warned that an unnecessarily burdensome process would be the difference in whether or not institutions on the island can access needed aid.

“If Secretary DeVos were truly concerned about the victims and institutions in Puerto Rico, then she would not have required a two-step application process, she would have made the application forms available in Spanish, and she would have made proactive outreach efforts,” he said. “The fact that the Education Department ignored our feedback does not surprise us. Education Secretary DeVos has not been sensitive to the on-the-ground reality on the island from the beginning. Nonetheless, it is extremely disappointing that after so many pleas to provide Puerto Rico with more support, Secretary DeVos continues to fail to prioritize the island.”

DeVos visited Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in November, meeting with government officials and top educators in the territories. And since then she's announced multiple aid packages for K-12 schools and colleges on the islands.

But CAP and Democratic lawmakers had questioned the process set up by the department for awarding the $175 million in aid for higher ed institutions approved by Congress in a massive February budget deal.

"The bureaucratic forms the department has proposed to require applicants in the disaster areas to fill out will create a significant and unnecessary burden that was never intended by Congress," lawmakers wrote in a letter to DeVos last month.

Nearly 50 Democrats signed the letter, which was led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Nydia Velazquez and Representative José Serrano, all New York Democrats. The lawmakers also argued that having institutions complete detailed applications for emergency aid was an unprecedented requirement.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, said the process closely followed the one used for awarding aid in 2009 after natural disasters the previous year. She also said a two-step process would speed delivery of aid.

"Use of a pre-application helps applicants enter the program quickly, and the application will be simple once allocations are determined," she said.

Application materials were also provided only in English to get them out as quickly as possible, Hill said. The department will provide technical assistance to applicants with limited English proficiency, she said.

Many higher ed institutions have already seen an infusion of new campus-based funds since those storms thanks to a reallocation of Federal Work-Study money announced by the department in March. But Puerto Rican colleges received only about a fifth of the $41 million in reallocated student aid. A number of mainland institutions were big recipients of the new work-study funds.

That money did not require an application -- the department had discretion to reallocate unused work-study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant money to disaster-affected institutions. Colleges and universities were deemed eligible if they participate in those programs and are either in an area affected by natural disasters or accepted a significant number of students from affected areas, the department said.

Liberty University in Virginia received more than $200,000 in new funds, while Grand Canyon University in Arizona received about $239,000. And New York University received just under $265,000 in new money.

New York University made high-profile efforts to enroll displaced students from Puerto Rican institutions for the spring semester and committed to covering their full costs -- tuition, as well as room and board and course materials -- associated with those students who lack additional federal support.

The university was unaware it had received any new federal funding until it was contacted by The New York Times about the award, said spokesman John Beckman. After seeking a better understanding of the allocation from members of Congress and the department, NYU came to learn the new funding allocation was based on all regularly enrolled students from areas affected by hurricanes or wildfires in 2017.

The department said it used a methodology to reallocate work-study and SEOG funds based on data from federal student aid applications. Unused work-study funds are reallocated each year, but the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Education Relief Act of 2017 gave the department flexibility to reallocate an additional pot of money to institutions enrolling students affected by natural disasters.

Because of the commitment to pay for any displaced Puerto Rican students, NYU plans to use that work-study money to assist all eligible students from states affected by natural disasters.

"We will be using those funds for federal work-study for students from those areas, and if there is any surplus -- any money that can't be spent on students from the affected areas -- we will return that to the federal government," Beckman said. "To us, the clear intent of the act was to assist people from those areas."

The Association of Private Colleges and Universities of Puerto Rico had called for an effective doubling of work-study funding for the island after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. The association's executive director, Carmen J. Cividanes-Lago, said she thinks it’s problematic that Puerto Rican institutions didn’t get a larger share of the additional work-study and SEOG funding made available.

“The devastation here is islandwide,” she said.

Obed Jiménez Vélez, the president of the Antillean Adventist University, a Christian institution in Mayagüez, said the ability of his students to work is absolutely critical. He said the university has a sizable group of students whose families left the island after the hurricane because they'd lost their employment -- but who themselves decided to stay.

"We had students whose families moved out, and they were struggling alone in the island trying to finish the degree. The ability to be able to work and strengthen their financial situation was a very important retention issue for them," he said.

Puerto Rican college administrators interviewed by Inside Higher Ed said that electricity on the island continues to be unreliable, with regular blackouts. Some universities are also dealing with major damage to their campuses and insurance claims worth many millions of dollars.

Manuel J. Fernós, the president of Inter American University of Puerto Rico, said the institution has filed $24 million in insurance claims so far, of which it's received about $12 million back. The insurance policy has a 2 percent deductible, which the institution is seeking reimbursement for from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ernesto Vázquez Martinez, the executive vice president of Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, said the university has applied for assistance from FEMA, but the process is slowed pending the outcome of its $5.5 million insurance claim, of which it’s received a $2 million advance payout so far.

Puerto Rican universities have also seen declines in enrollment related to the hurricane -- of a magnitude of 11 percent in the case of Polytechnic University.

Against this backdrop, the new call for applications for emergency assistance from the Department of Education does not yet appear to be widely known: one administrator said a reporter’s mention of it Monday was the first he’d heard of it. Cividanes-Lago said the association alerted member institutions of the funding opportunity -- and the one-month deadline for the pre-application -- Monday.

The association had previously made a number of detailed suggestions for streamlining the department's application process for emergency assistance -- none of which were taken up -- including eliminating the first part of the two-stage application process, the pre-application, and allowing for synchronization with forms already submitted by universities to FEMA and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits institutions in Puerto Rico.

“Once you’ve gone through what we’ve been through, one would hope that things would be kept simple,” Cividanes-Lago said. “Keep it simple so we can use the energy to recuperate, which we definitely need that energy for.”

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