When the novel coronavirus forced colleges and universities to abruptly send students and faculty home for the semester, vulnerable students scrambled to continue their studies amid financial stress, and schools reeled from housing refunds and other lost revenue.

Enter Congress with a $14 billion lifeline.

Schools, anticipating a deepening economic crisis, had lobbied for more, but they still welcomed the support. And they hoped for swift and clear guidance from the Education Department, which Congress tasked with dispensing funding as quickly as possible.

Instead, the implementation of the law is creating new tensions between Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Congress. Democrats accuse DeVos of pushing an ideological agenda to the detriment of students and schools devastated by the crisis. They accuse the department of misinterpreting the law and making harried decisions without considering the consequences.

DeVos says she is working within the confines of the legislation Congress wrote, and her supporters praise the department for swift execution of a complex bill.

With “minimal direction,” said Evan G. Dixon, a spokesman for Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), “she is taking entirely reasonable steps to implement the law fairly, effectively and efficiently. ”

But the problems transcend partisan politics. At every turn, new problems emerge that threaten to slow or limit the distribution of critical aid. University leaders say there were glitches with the application. Then, after they applied, the Trump administration imposed restrictions barring millions of students from receiving help and limiting how schools could use the money.

Colleges that should be eligible for more money are receiving less, while others are in line for a windfall that’s out of step with the legislation’s goals. Guidance from the department is inconsistent and reporting requirements are confusing, college leaders say. And with each passing week, there are new rules.

“I have never been in a situation where you get the money and you’re still getting the rules after the fact,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a Roman Catholic women’s school in Washington, D.C. “It’s very weird and disturbing because you feel like you’re doing everything in good faith, and then you might make a mistake that you don’t even know is a mistake."

The first stream

The Cares Act created three pools of funding for colleges and universities: $12.5 billion for all schools that participate in the federal student aid program; $1 billion for minority-serving institutions, and about $350 million for colleges that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus.

One of the biggest points of contention between DeVos and congressional Democrats involves the largest pot of money.

Most of that $12.5 billion, 75 percent, was to be distributed based on a school’s share of the nation’s total number of full-time students who receive need-based Pell grants. The remaining 25 percent would be based on the school’s share of all other full-time students.

About half of the money must go directly to students, to pay for expenses such as rent, child care, technology and groceries. Colleges can keep the remaining money to keep their institutions running.

Initially, DeVos told college presidents that the only requirement for the emergency grants was to use the money to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations. Otherwise, it was up to them.

Trinity wasted no time applying. After getting approval for $980,000, McGuire said, she shot off an email to students on a Sunday morning. By 5 p.m. she had received 500 requests.

Weeks later, the university had already sent most of the money out the door when DeVos suddenly narrowed who was eligible, saying only students who qualify for federal financial aid could receive the relief funds. That move effectively shut out about 1.5 million undocumented and international students, including dozens attending Trinity.

DeVos drew widespread criticism. Undocumented students are counted in the formula that allocates funds, advocates point out, but they now can’t see a dime.

A few colleges, including Trinity, the University of California and California State University, are using their own funds and soliciting donations to help undocumented students.

“While the federal government is discriminating against people and that’s a horror story, we will not discriminate against any of our students,” McGuire said.

DeVos insists the relief bill is clear that only students eligible or federal aid can be awarded emergency money.

“Students that receive … federal student aid are the universe of students that we want and need to help most directly,” DeVos said in an April 27 interview. “Congress had the opportunity to write the law a different way, and they chose not to. And I’m here to follow the law. ”

But there is nothing explicit in the legislation about which students are eligible. And the funding agreement that colleges have been asked to sign says the grants are not to be considered financial aid, raising questions about why access to aid should affect who’s eligible.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) raised those points in a letter urging DeVos to reverse her stance. And they said undocumented and international students aren’t the only ones who will suffer. The only efficient way for colleges to know who’s eligible for federal aid is by looking at federal aid applications. But millions of students don’t ever apply, including many who would qualify if they did. At last count, 7.5 million undergraduate and graduate students did not apply.

On Monday, California Community Colleges, with the backing of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, sued DeVos over the eligibility restrictions. Her decision “arbitrarily excluded” hundreds of thousands of community college students, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement.

The department declined to comment on pending legislation but said it is working on guidance that will address the issue of people who don’t file federal aid applications.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, a higher-education group, said schools are almost exclusively giving emergency grants to students who are receiving federal financial aid, out of fear of running afoul of the department’s guidance.

“This is not what Congress intended,” Hartle said. “The [Education Department] is implementing the law as it wishes it were written. ”

Rewriting the rule book

Some institutions, including Trinity, are eligible for multiple streams of funding. Because the majority of Trinity’s 1,500 undergrads are black or Hispanic, the school is considered a minority-serving institution, a federal designation.

The legislation says the pot of money for minority-serving schools must be allocated across 11 federal grant programs that support under-resourced schools. Colleges that educate a number of underserved populations are eligible for more than one of those grants, so some expected the department would ensure those schools received the most money.

But DeVos decided to limit awards in one category to schools that don’t qualify for the other 10 grants. The decision reduces funding that could have gone to Trinity and some cash-strapped community colleges that serve high proportions of low-income students.

What’s more, at least 100 colleges that are designated as minority-serving institutions were initially mislabeled by the department and shut out of funding. The error has since been fixed.

All told, Trinity is in line for a little over $2 million from the stimulus bill, most of which has already landed in the hands of hundreds of students. McGuire, who has led the university since 1989, said every dollar is welcomed but that the money falls short of what is needed.

Enrollment for the summer and fall at Trinity is holding steady, but because the university is letting students with tuition balances register, revenue is under pressure. Trinity is also paying down a construction loan it took out in 2016 to build its first academic building in more than a half-century.

“It is a precarious time for Trinity,” McGuire said. “We are not a wealthy institution. Our endowment is $16 million. That’s the sob story, but we’re going to make it. I’m committed to making sure that the people here don’t suffer because of the pandemic.”

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said the department is disseminating money in the $1 billion pot of funding “very broadly so the impact is less concentrated on institutions that are arguably most in need of the funds. ”

The Education Department did not provide an explanation for the restriction.

Hitting the hardest hit

Congress set aside about $350 million for colleges with the greatest unmet financial need. The legislation requires schools to show they have significant expenses from the pandemic, with priority given to those receiving less than $500,000 from the other pots of money.

Higher-education experts expected the department would create a grant competition, like it did for some of the money Congress set aside for K-12 schools, allowing struggling colleges to apply for funding. And DeVos signaled her preference for federal dollars to go to the neediest colleges when she pressured Harvard University and other wealthy institutions to forgo stimulus funding.

Yet the secretary chose to use the last pot of funding to ensure every eligible college receives at least $500,000 in relief money, no matter how small and no matter the actual need. Under her guidelines, any school that didn’t receive $500,000 from one of the other two funding streams was eligible for the third.

That means Portland Actors Conservatory, a two-year training program with six students, is in line to receive around the same amount of money as Paul D Camp Community College, with an enrollment of 1,288 undergraduates in Franklin, Va., according to Education Department data.

“It looks like someone said, ‘It’s hard to make a judgment about who has need. Let’s top them all off and call it a day,’ ” said Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

DeVos’s decision decimated the fund. Only $15 million, or 4 percent of the money Congress earmarked for the hardest-hit schools, will be available through a grant competition. Hartle argues all of the money was meant to go through that competitive process.

“That would have taken the department a considerable amount of time, so they decided to release the money quickly,” Hartle said. “But they might as well have dumped the money out of a plane over Cincinnati. ”

Education Department spokeswoman Angela Morabito said more money could become available if institutions refuse to apply for the $500,000, at which point their share would return to the pot. Schools could turn down the money to avoid bureaucracy or a public backlash. But no one knows how long that might take, Miller said, and time is the enemy of colleges facing massive budget cuts.

“This is yet another harmful decision from Secretary DeVos that will keep relief from those who need it most,” said Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “Secretary DeVos has once again completely ignored the intent of Congress and given the funds to schools without determining if they actually need it. ”

As the depth of the economic crisis becomes apparent, higher-education groups and lawmakers are calling for billions of dollars in additional spending to stabilize colleges and universities. They say Congress must be explicit in addressing who can receive funds and how those dollars can be spent. Without that, they say, the Trump administration could bend the legislation to its own will, as they say it is doing now.

McGuire, at Trinity, worries some of her peers will be tripped up by small nuances in the wording of the Education Department’s guidance and jeopardize their access to federal student aid.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing, including the department, but the rules read like what they used to say: A camel is a horse designed by a committee,” McGuire said. “They just don’t fit. ”