WASHINGTON – 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 effect: 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 Donald 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 — NYU 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 other states affected by last year's hurricanes, like Florida, the devastation is not at all comparable.
"Here, no one was spared," said Carmen 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.
Hurricane Maria left untold deaths and millions in the dark. But despite pleas for more assistance from higher education officials in Puerto Rico, just $8.9 million of the $41 million in emergency relief funds disbursed by the Education Department has made its way to the island.
Congressional leaders and Puerto Rico higher education advocates say that is not nearly enough.
"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."
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.
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.
In Puerto Rico, some academic and administrative buildings at colleges and universities were 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 U.S. commonwealth whose economy cannot employ students who rely on jobs to pay their school expenses. More than 230,000 students 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," Cividanes-Lago said. "We're extremely fragile. We're very vulnerable."