Two years after Hurricane Katrina took its toll on colleges along the Gulf Coast, the federal government isn't doing enough to facilitate recovery and ensure equity in the resources institutions receive, according to a report from a group whose mission is improving educational quality in the South.
The Southern Education Foundation bills its report, "Education After Katrina: Time for a New Federal Response," as the first independent, comprehensive look at the state of education in Louisiana and Mississippi after the storm. Using government data, private surveys and other sources, the report covers both K-12 and higher education in the region, and argues that they are suffering from a lack of funding.
As of the start of this academic year, the federal government has committed roughly $2.5 billion to relief and recovery relating to education after Katrina, the report says, citing the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Department of Education. That amounts to two percent of the country's Katrina-related disaster funding. Hurricane funds made up less than 2.5 percent of the U.S. Education Department's expenditures over the past two years, according to the report.
"What has been done thus far by the federal government by any measure is grossly inadequate," said Lynn Huntley, president of the Southern Education Foundation. "What's missing is a comprehensive plan for education recovery."
A few months after Katrina, in an effort to quantify the storm's effect on 27 colleges along the Gulf Coast, higher education associations put together a comprehensive estimate of $1.2 billion in estimated physical damages to the campuses (which those who calculated that amount said was conservative), and potential losses of $230 million in tuition refunds to students who left or were expected to leave.
In December 2005, Congress approved $200 million in aid for colleges, which was split largely between Louisiana and Mississippi -- with a small percentage going to institutions that temporarily housed transferring students. Subsequent supplemental appropriations of less than $100 million have also gone to assist higher education.
Much has been said about how the federal aid was distributed. The Louisiana Board of Regents determined in early 2006 that $75 million of the initial aid would be spread across its institutions based on a formula taking into account enrollment, lost tuition revenue and financial aid budgets. (And, controversially, not physical damage caused by the hurricane.) Colleges there also used $8.5 million in federal funds to offer special need-based scholarships for displaced students to return to both public and private colleges in Louisiana. Distribution of funds was based on the number of students colleges had in fall 2004 who were from areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In that first round, Tulane University, with a large student body and higher tuition than other institutions in the region, received the most aid, followed by the University of New Orleans and Delgado Community College, the two-year college of New Orleans. Dillard University, which had roughly 2,000 students but incurred the worst physical damage, received less than the others.
Mike Strecker, a spokesman for Tulane, said the university hasn't paid attention to and is not concerning itself with funding comparisons among Gulf Coast institutions.
The report cites state and federal figures showing that even though Louisiana suffered more than four times the damage to its campuses than did Mississippi, the repair funding it received is only marginally greater than its neighboring state.
"Where is the equity in education resource allocation?" Huntley asked.
Steve Suitts, the report's author and program coordinator at the foundation, said it makes no sense that Louisiana colleges, hit hardest by the hurricane and also by enrollment drops last fall, wouldn't receive the lion's share of the funding. The Education Department should focus more on distributing aid based on need, he said, particularly because the Louisiana colleges also are the ones educating some of the poorest students.
Suitts called for better tracking of students who move in and out of colleges in the region. Data show that the South still maintained the largest share of the students who transferred after Katrina, though many others went to the coasts.
"No one has said, 'let's see what we've distributed and see where the biggest holes remain,' " he said. "We need an overall assessment. The fact of the matter is that hasn't been done."
Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which lobbied heavily in support of federal aid for colleges in the affected region, agreed that New Orleans institutions -- and particularly those that took in little or no revenue two falls ago -- have been shortchanged. For instance, Loyola University New Orleans, an institution she represents, is still well below pre-Katrina enrollment and is dependent on tuition revenue for financial support.
Littlefield said she expected New Orleans colleges to get a large of share of the $30 million deferred supplemental funding that is being distributed by the Education Department now. She and others also continue to push for a disaster loan provision as part of the Higher Education Act renewal that Congress is considering, which would allow recovering institutions to borrow from the Education Department at a low interest rate.
She said complaints about how distribution in the early stages took place are misguided. "Maybe none of us are ecstatic about how the allocations have gone, but the department has gone out of its way to be as fair as it could -- though it would be naïve to suggest that there weren't political considerations" (regarding the senators requesting funding), she explained. "It stands to reason that larger institutions have large needs."
In recent months, some New Orleans colleges have pointed to enrollment increases as encouraging signs. But numbers from the report show that there's still a long way to go. More than 26,000 students from public colleges in Louisiana and 9,000 in Mississippi who had been enrolled prior to Katrina missed school last academic year. That's a significant drop from the year of the hurricane, the report notes -- but still a cause for concern.
According to the report, as of this past spring, Southern University at New Orleans was at 63 percent of its pre-Katrina enrollment. The University of New Orleans was at 66 percent, Delgado Community College was at 70 percent and Nunez Community College at 75 percent. None of the city's main private colleges had reached 90 percent of pre-storm levels, the report says.
Community college students have been particularly hard hit by the hurricane. Many have been displaced from their colleges and -- unlike many four-year students in New Orleans -- they are unable to relocate to finish their educations elsewhere. Black students, who make up a large portion of four- and two-year college students in New Orleans, have been disproportionately affected by campus closures, the report says.