In the face of mounting political pressure, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Thursday the release of nearly $7 billion for colleges and universities to help students in financial distress because of the coronavirus.

Congress set aside the money in the $2 trillion aid package signed into law last month, but schools have been awaiting guidance from the Education Department about how the funding will be allocated and how it can be used. Policymakers and higher education groups urged DeVos to take action as students bombarded schools with requests for help.

On Thursday, DeVos informed college presidents the money would be immediately available once they sign an agreement to comply with the relief bill. The Cares Act directs schools to give students money to cover expenses such as food, housing, technology, child care and health care, but left it up to the Education Department to flesh out the terms. Now the department is leaving it up to schools.

“There is a lot of latitude in the law, but we hope and expect that institutions are going to prioritize those most in need and ensure that’s where the funds get directed to,” DeVos said Thursday on a call with reporters.

Colleges and universities will have tremendous discretion in awarding grants. Each institution can develop its own system and process for determining how to disburse the money. The only requirement is that the funds be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the coronavirus. That should leave schools enough flexibility to provide help to undocumented students and others without access to federal student aid dollars.

Student advocates lauded the department’s decision to give colleges so much latitude and to explicit prohibit schools from using the emergency dollars for themselves. Advocates had decried attempts by college lobbyists to redirect some of the funding to reimburse schools that have refunded housing and meal plan costs to students.

“This emergency aid will provide a critical lifeline to students … improving their well-being. But that will only happen if the funds are effectively and efficiently distributed by colleges and universities,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. “It is not easy to distribute emergency aid well, and I don’t see much attention to that in the secretary’s letter.”

The nonprofit Hope Center, which Goldrick-Rab founded, released an extensive guide Tuesday on some of the best practices for awarding emergency aid. Among them are creating a simple application process, keeping red tape for students to a minimum and minimizing the administrative burden on program staff.

Although colleges can decide how much to give students, DeVos suggested in her letter that they consider using the maximum Pell Grant award of $6,195 as a threshold. Pell, a federal aid program for low-income college students, plays a significant role in the allocation of relief funds. Congress set aside the most amount of money for colleges with a high proportion of Pell recipients to ensure the neediest students receive help.

Public colleges and universities will receive the most amount of emergency grant funds at $4.5 billion, while private nonprofits will get about $1.2 billion, and for-profit schools will receive more than $500 million, according to the Education Department.

In the Washington area, the University of Maryland at College Park will receive roughly $10.7 million to help students, while George Mason University will get $10.4 million. Virginia Commonwealth University will receive $10.1 million, while the University of Virginia is in line to receive $5.8 million.

Howard University is on tap to take in about $4.3 million in emergency aid, American University $3.1 million and George Washington University $4.5 million. Among the region’s community colleges, Montgomery College and Northern Virginia Community College will receive $2 million and $10 million, respectively.