Hurricane Katrina kicked students out of New Orleans colleges, and institutions around the state and the country are welcoming them with open arms. Meanwhile, the closed colleges in Louisiana must wait for a time their students can return – and many hope that they will not have to abandon this semester.
With some of their campuses reportedly under up to 10 feet of water, many New Orleans students started looking for a way to avoid missing a semester. Some colleges quickly began enrolling students as transfers, while others are considering them provisional or visiting students. With little or no access to academic and financial records, all colleges accepting students are coping on a case-by-case basis.
Centenary College, in Shreveport, had been sheltering hundreds of Dillard University students in its athletic facility, and extended its enrollment date to September 6 to allow those and other displaced students a chance to sign up. "We don’t know what to call them," said Lynn Stewart, a Centenary spokeswoman, when asked if the students would be considered transfers. “We’re dealing with it as it comes.”
Colleges that already face heavy damage bills could have the catastrophe magnified if they lose scads of students. “We know they will go back to their original campus,” Stewart added.
Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard, agreed. “I do trust my colleagues and I do believe they are offering support rather than attracting students,” she said. Hughes was in Alabama Thursday, “managing the university through this archaic system of phone conferences,” she said. Two engineers who were left at the Dillard campus to try to minimize damage were finally evacuated Thursday, so Hughes has no idea what her campus looks like. Still, she said she is already in touch with administrators and working on a plan, including “flexible scheduling,” to be able to provide a full year of classes.
Tulane University may have to be flexible as well. As of Thursday, a message from President Scott Cowen on the institution's emergency Web site read: “I understand everyone's anxiety but we need additional time to assess the situation in New Orleans.” The site said an update on plans for the coming semester will be provided within 48 hours.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said he heard that Dillard was under six feet of water, and worried that other colleges under water face long, expensive reconstruction. “Students are creative and resourceful and are finding places to go,” Hartle said. “Colleges are complex, and there will be substantial problems with technological systems, research infrastructure, and records.” Without access to financial records, some students’ financial aid may be in jeopardy. “Hopefully Congress will provide flexibility to the Department of Education to meet student needs,” Hartle added.
Fortunately, officials at all of the colleges contacted said off-campus backups of electronic records exist, but may not be immediately accessible. For now, some of the colleges that opened their doors are taking students at their word. “We give a bit of faith on the front end, with documentation to follow at a reasonable time,” said Darrell Duncan, the associate vice president of accounting services at Lipscomb University, which is in the process of enrolling as transfers, in an effort to maintain financial aid, all five students who called seeking help.
“We know it’s temporary,” said Kim Chaudoin, a Lipscomb spokeswoman. “Hopefully their colleges will be lenient about taking credits.”
Some students just paid tuition at their now shuttered college, so some of the institutions accepting students are holding off on asking for payment for now.
Walter Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the Dallas County Community College District offered free online courses. Bumphus said he has been deluged with offerings, from a $10,000 check along with food and clothing from a college he chose not to name, to the offer from John Wood Community College, in Illinois, to have students in the truck driving program ship supplies. “I can’t tell you how responsive and generous people have been,” Bumphus said.
George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, worried that many students will be overwhelmed by putting their lives back together, and may drop out permanently. Thus, Bumphus said the most important thing is to get students in class somewhere, anywhere, as soon as possible. “We have 25,000 students displaced,” Bumphus said. “We are a poor state, and the community and technical colleges have been making a great difference. The main thing now is to continue to get our state educated. Right now I’m just surprised by some of the states that have called to help.”
Some colleges outside Louisiana opened their arms and their doors. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen announced Wednesday that all public institutions in his state would be open to displaced students with minimal logistics. If students already paid tuition elsewhere, they will not have to do so again. Rutgers University welcomed back any New Jersey natives whose colleges closed.
Twenty-five students have enrolled as visiting students thus far, mainly from Tulane University, Loyola University, and Xavier University. “Normally we would get some paper work from the home institution,” said Ken Branson, a Rutgers spokesman, who said students have been calling all day to ask about enrolling. “That’s not something we can do. The idea here is to be helpful rather than bureaucratic.” Rutgers just got a call from a displaced graduate student looking to enroll. “We’re figuring out how to deal with that,” Branson said.
Babson College has taken in a dozen provisional students so far, primarily from Tulane. “We’ll do whatever we possibly can,” said Patti Greene, Babson’s undergraduate dean. For the most part, colleges accepting students have not been able to make any contact with students’ home institutions, and are just figuring out procedures as they go along. “We have a freshman here who just moved in, and her mother is stuck here,” Greene said. “There are so many loose pieces we’re trying to hold together.”
For now, students have, in large part, been cut off from their home institutions as well. “I understand students, if they thought Katrina cut their education off, they would pursue other opportunities because we can’t communicate with them,” Hughes, the Dillard president, said. “If we can get the message out to them that we are coming back, and remind them what fair Dillard represents, I have no doubt they will return.”