Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, the Center for American Progress’ Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative submitted a public comment letter calling on the U.S. Department of Education to eliminate the onerous Higher Education Hurricane and Wildfire Relief Program Application requirements and streamline the process while making all documents available in Spanish and hiring Spanish-speaking staff to facilitate the outreach to affected institutions.
The Department of Education’s application requirements could be the difference between accessing much needed emergency financial assistance or not. However, the department’s cumbersome and problematic application is having an extremely negative impact on the ability of institutions of higher education (IHEs) affected by hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico to apply for and access disaster relief funds for the following reasons:
- It is arbitrary and not required by law.
- It is not available in Spanish.
- Puerto Rico is still amid a long recovery which makes the application difficult to access and fill out—especially without access to high speed internet, reliable electricity, basic needs, etc.
- It is exacerbated by a two-step process that occurs before the application and after the application.
- Each applicant or institution would have to spend an excessive amount of time (estimated 40 hours) to complete the application process.
- The process is not familiar to those who have not previously accessed grants before.
In addition, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rep. José E. Serrano (D-NY) in conjunction with 44 members of Congress, released a comments letter disclosing that DeVos has significantly underfunded Puerto Rico. The letter reveals that Puerto Rico has received a menial one-fifth of all hurricane funds under the reallocation campus-based aid that was provided by Congress under the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Education Relief Act of 2017. It is unclear what metrics DeVos is using to allocate this funding and CAP’s Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative is worried about this precedent because DeVos will soon dole out long overdue $100 million for emergency assistance to IHEs and another $75 million for payments to help defray the unexpected expenses associated with enrolling displaced students from affected areas under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.
Initially, the Department of Education gave the public a short two-day period to provide feedback on the application, but the deadline for comments was extended until 11:59 p.m., April 5, 2018, after public and congressional pressure.
CAP’s comment reads in part:
We write to strongly oppose the application burdens placed on higher education institutions seeking access to emergency relief funds, particularly as they affect public and non-profit institutions of higher learning in Puerto Rico.
The entire application process is unnecessarily cumbersome and detrimental to aiding colleges and universities on the island. The requirement of both a pre-application and an application, for example, to access these funds are arbitrary and not required by the law establishing disaster relief funds. The Department of Education itself estimates that completing the application would take dozens of hours.
This needlessly complex process is particularly concerning given that Puerto Rico is still in the midst of a long, arduous recovery. Significant parts of the island remain without electricity and those that have regained power experience regular blackouts. This leaves large areas without any or reliable access to high-speed internet and the basic services to not only access the applications but apply for the funds.
Importantly, the aforementioned applications and the instructions to complete them are not in Spanish despite the fact that other hurricane guidance is available in Spanish. The failure to provide this documentation in Spanish provides additional barriers to access for the colleges and universities who would most benefit from the funding.
We recommend that the Department of Education waive these burdensome application requirements and significantly streamline the process while making all documentation available in Spanish. In addition, the department should assign Spanish-speaking staff to assist in reaching out to affected institutions with information regarding the availability of these emergency funds and to assist them in procuring them. This would make the funding, which is drastically needed, more readily available to those institutions and students most in need.
Click here to read the full comments.
For more information or to speak with an expert on this topic, please contact Rafael J. Medina at [email protected] or 202.478.5313.