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Resiliency U 

Local universities overcome the adversities wrought by Katrina and resume the task of educating young adults

They have had to tighten their fiscal belts and do a lot of recruiting legwork, but New Orleans' universities say they are weathering the storm of post-Katrina concerns about student safety, curriculum cuts and quality of life in the city and are even attracting scholars who want to play a part in the area's recovery. The five major universities in New Orleans " Tulane, Loyola, Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), Xavier and University of New Orleans (UNO) " suffered substantial hurricane damage to their campuses and had to cancel their fall 2005 semesters. Students who had just arrived to begin college life in the Big Easy became part of the exodus of the city's populace. The expected three days of exile stretched into weeks (or, for some, months) as the universities, along with the rest of New Orleans, shut down. The entire student population that initially enrolled in these five colleges were scattered to other universities across the nation for the fall semester.

In addition to the loss of students and the revenue base tuition and fees provide, Tulane was hit with more than $600 million in damage and repair costs. Loyola, like Tulane, had to cut numerous faculty and staff positions after experiencing $14 million in losses. SUNO was basically wiped off the map, UNO went underwater and Xavier, overlooking the 17th Street Canal, suffered heavy damage. College administrators, faculty and staff didn't miss a beat, however, and just five months after Katrina, they scheduled classes for the spring 2006 semester.

A little less than half of the 1,000 freshman students enrolled at Xavier for the fall semester had returned to campus when the school reopened. Of the 500 Loyola students dispersed to other colleges (27 of which were fellow Jesuit institutions), 92 percent returned to attend spring classes, while next door, more than 90 percent returned to Tulane.

Plucky SUNO, its former campus virtually annihilated, opened in the Sophie B. Wright Charter School, a middle school the university had taken over just a month before the storm. Of the 3,647 pre-Katrina students enrolled at SUNO, 2,100 returned to attend classes. By the time the fall 2006 semester came around, SUNO's enrollment was 2,321. SUNO Chancellor Dr. Victor Ukpolo gives partial credit for this success to the restructured Office of Enrollment Management Services, which used the Internet, television, radio and newspapers to wage an aggressive comeback campaign. SUNO now teaches its students in a village of 45 modular facilities built by FEMA and the Army Corp of Engineers on an auxilliary campus.

Fall 2007 enrollment showed a 14 percent increase over last year, making SUNO the fastest growing college in the area. Attended primarily by local students, the school dropped programs after Katrina but has filled the educational needs of its students in the interim by adding new programs both online and on campus. SUNO expects to return to its original campus when repairs are completed.

Within four days after Katrina, the admissions staff was already visiting some 620 high schools and participating in 170 college fairs across the country and internationally, says Lori Zawistowski, Loyola's dean of admissions and enrollment management. The administration also kept college counselors, prospective students, alumni, teachers and the public abreast of events occurring in New Orleans and on Loyola's campus. Pre-Katrina, Loyola used direct marketing with printed material. After the storm, online communications became its lifeline because of the meltdown of the U.S. Postal Service in the New Orleans area. By creating 'online communities," Loyola reached out to prospective students and those who already had been accepted and their families, proclaiming that the Big Easy " and Loyola " were alive and kicking. For its fall 2007 recruitment, Loyola centered on telecommunication campaigns with direct-mail programs. Its marketing message targeted financial-planning assistance, academic standards and the quality of student life on and off campus. Loyola increased its visits to high schools, participated in a greater number of college fairs and hosted on-site visits from more than 100 college counselors around the country.

By consolidating existing programs, Zawatowski feels the Loyola experience has been streamlined and improved. A year after the storm, enrollment stood at 4,874, with 50 percent of those students coming from out of state. The 2007 fall semester has seen a slight increase in enrollment, and 40 percent of students are from the New Orleans area. An additional 6 percent come from the rest of Louisiana.

Norman Francis, president of Xavier University, America's only historically Catholic and black college, is quick to point out that his school has graduated more than 1,200 students since Hurricane Katrina. For the fall 2007 semester, enrollment increased to 3,103 students and included a 50 percent hike in the number of freshmen. Although the freshman class still is not at its pre-Katrina level of 1,000-plus, Francis says Xavier's recovery is nearly complete, aided in part by effective marketing and a low-interest loan of $165 million from the U.S. Department of Education.

The overall enrollment currently is three-quarters what it was pre-Katrina. Named one of the best 366 national colleges by The Princeton Review, Xavier attracts students from all over the country. Francis views the rise in freshman enrollment as a sign that parents are beginning to feel comfortable sending their children to New Orleans for an education, overcoming what he calls 'the mama factor" of fear brought on by the horrors of the storm and the crime that followed.

'It's very gratifying to see students from across the nation showing a renewed interest in attending Xavier," Francis says. He believes the reputation the college has maintained in the fields of liberal arts, math, science, premed, biology and pharmacy has helped prospective students overlook the slow pace of recovery in the city. School officials believe it will take another three years for Xavier to reach its pre-Katrina enrollment figures.

Tulane University's current recruitment strategy places an emphasis on reassuring parents that Tulane is as good a university as it was before Katrina. In reality, the quality may have been enhanced by the university's controversial decision in December 2005 to suspend several programs in order to maintain financial solvency, says Michael Strecker, director of public relations at Tulane. The five suspended majors held little interest to students, Strecker says, and dropping them allows the university to concentrate on other areas. The stately Uptown campus is now repaired, and parents of Tulane students and alumni have been involved in a recruiting outreach effort that attempts to reassure newcomers that the university has maintained its high educational standards and quality of student life.

After Katrina, 125 high-school counselors were flown in to judge both the university and New Orleans for themselves. The unique experience of helping to rebuild a great American city has become part of Tulane's educational mantra. In 2004, 16 percent of Tulane's students came from Louisiana. Three years later, the figure has grown to 18.4 percent. After the storm, Tulane instituted a 'renewal plan" to facilitate financial stabilization that involved cutting faculty, staff and some majors. Strecker points out that despite the increased numbers of undergraduates entering Tulane this fall, overall undergraduate and graduate student enrollment is below the ideal post-Katrina projection. Like Xavier, Tulane officials believe it will take another three years for the school to reach its desired enrollment numbers. The city's smaller population also has had an impact on the recovery of Tulane's medical facilities " not to mention high utilities rates, insurance costs and contract labor fees, Strecker says. Despite all the factors mentioned, he says Tulane is confident it can avoid additional faculty and staff cuts.

Across town, not far from the site of the old Pontchartrain Beach, the University of New Orleans is holding its own. UNO Director of Admissions Andy Benoit says the university's budget experienced a dramatic decline after Katrina and the school still needs funds to repair the University Center and its Arena in order to return the campus to normal. But financial support from the state and federal governments as well as private sources is keeping the quality of academics and student life afloat after the flood, he says, and there are some improvements in the campus, including a state-of-the-art residence hall that just opened.

By expanding its recruiting efforts in Louisiana and other states, UNO has been successful in attracting freshman students. Part of its campaign involves using Web-based communications to counter negative publicity about New Orleans that is seen and heard around the country. It has enjoyed some success in attracting a number of new students and bringing those who previously had attended UNO back into the fold. By 2007, the school's efforts had been rewarded by a 25 percent increase in both the number of returning undergraduate students who left because of Katrina and students who had transferred to other colleges. UNO's current total enrollment stands at 11,377.

One recruitment strategy UNO employs is to point out to prospective students that college life in New Orleans nowadays is about more than just taking classes. It's also about helping rebuild a great American city and save its traditions. Benoit points out that UNO's admissions office is seeing students who appear to have a strong dedication to the New Orleans community. Zawistowski of Loyola calls this trend a 'millennial factor young people who are college-bound seek out not only a college match but an opportunity to give back to the community."

click to enlarge New Orleans major universities report that despite having to cancel a semester of classes after Katrina and adverse publicity about the slow pace of recovery and quality-of-life issues, their enrollment is steadily growing and they hope to be back to normal within three years.
  • New Orleans major universities report that despite having to cancel a semester of classes after Katrina and adverse publicity about the slow pace of recovery and quality-of-life issues, their enrollment is steadily growing and they hope to be back to normal within three years.
click to enlarge SUNO's campus was swamped by Katrina, but the university overcame the obstacle by reopening in a "village' of dozens of modular buildings constructed by FEMA and the Corps of Engineers. It now is the fastest-growing university in the area. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • SUNO's campus was swamped by Katrina, but the university overcame the obstacle by reopening in a "village' of dozens of modular buildings constructed by FEMA and the Corps of Engineers. It now is the fastest-growing university in the area.
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