More Than Visiting

Most students who fled New Orleans say they will return, but some colleges that admitted them temporarily are letting them stay.
November 30, 2005

Hurricane Katrina scattered Tulane University students across the nation like spores cast aloft by a gust. The vast majority of students will return, either by choice or by order of the college they’re visiting. Where some of the spores have touched down, however, root systems have developed, and the students will not be returning.

Shortly after Katrina struck, the American Council on Education and seven other higher education associations issued guidelines that urged colleges that admitted displaced students to welcome them as visitors, not as new students, and not to let them enroll permanently once Tulane and other New Orleans colleges re-opened. While nearly every college in the United States is a member of one of the associations that developed the guidelines, it’s now clear that plenty of colleges are ignoring them with regard to the non-transfer rule.

Richard Whiteside, Tulane’s vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions, said that, based on registration numbers so far, 86 percent of students are returning, just 4 percent below what would be expected in a normal year.

Whiteside commended colleges for stepping up to take in students quickly, calling the post-Katrina actions of higher education institutions the “only adequate response by any industry.” Still, Whiteside was surprised to hear that some institutions are allowing students to stay around indefinitely.

The University of Colorado at Boulder accepted 150 students from New Orleans, and 16 of them, 11 from Tulane, will remain at Colorado. Barbara Todd, the registrar at Colorado, said that all of the students were paying tuition to Colorado, with state aid for out-of-staters, and she was not sure whether some were also paying Tulane. The guidelines asked that students not be charged double, and that tuition go to the home institution. She said that if students had been admitted to Tulane or Xavier University, Colorado deemed them automatically fit for admission. Some of the 16 students have officially transferred, and freshmen, some of whom knew Tulane for mere hours, will simply be allowed to continue as if they meant to attend Colorado all along. “I haven’t heard [any qualms from Tulane],” said Dirk Martin, a Colorado spokesman.

Whiteside noted that, based on registration numbers, 77 percent of freshmen are returning. For juniors and seniors, the figure is over 90 percent.

Some institutions that welcomed students with open arms are now showing them the door, because the students have not gone through a proper admissions or transfer process, or out of a sense of duty to give Tulane back its students. (While students from other New Orleans colleges also scattered and many enrolled elsewhere, Tulane's students come from all over the country and so enrolled all over the country -- and the university has been aggressive in asking for them back.)

Of the eight Tulane freshmen who landed at Harvard University, five of them would like to stay. Paige Purdy, one of those who likes her new Cambridge home, worked with the Undergraduate Council to draft a resolution -- it passed with an overwhelming majority -- asking the administration to make an exception to the visiting-student rules and allow visiting freshmen a chance to apply for mid-year admission. “Their entire college experience has been at Harvard,” said Matthew Glazer, president of the council. Purdy added that “nothing diminishes what Harvard has done for us,” but said she just doesn’t “want to go through the whole process of being a first semester freshmen again.”

Robert Mitchell, a spokesman for Harvard, said that the students were part of a special visitors program that does not permit students to transfer beginning the semester after their visit. If they want, he said, the students can leave for a semester and then apply.  

Whiteside said that applications were way up right after Katrina, and have leveled off to make this an average year, in terms of applications, for Tulane. He said he expected that most colleges do not need to be told to direct students back to Tulane. But, in interviews with colleges across the nation, some of which were randomly selected, it was clear that some institutions are allowing students from New Orleans to make a near seamless transition.

Chris Elliott unpacked his belongings at Tulane one day, and evacuated the next. He landed at Southwestern University, where he had previously gained admission. Elliott said he is highly allergic to mold, and would “not be able to breath” in New Orleans, but added that he has “settled in” and “doesn’t feel a need to change.” As far as Southwestern is concerned, Elliott can stay for whatever reason he likes. Contrary to the college associations' guidelines, Southwestern charged Elliott tuition, though he had already paid Tulane. He will be filling out Tulane’s tuition refund application shortly. “My adviser e-mailed to ask about classes for [spring],” Elliot said. “I told her that I’m not going back.”

Esther Gulli is the chief of staff to the vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of California at Berkeley, another institution at which students passed a resolution asking the administration to be flexible about New Orleans transfers. Gulli said that hosting visiting students is an agreement with the other institution, and that part of that agreement is that the students go back after the visiting semester. Gulli said that students who want to stay will have to sit out a semester and then enter Berkeley’s competitive applicant pool for next fall. “It’s a gamble,” Gulli said.

Amy Johnson, associate dean of students at the University of Southern California, which accepted about 100 Gulf Coast students, said that the university is following the guidelines. “[The agreement with students] was just while their schools were closed,” Johnson said. Carol Wood, a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia agreed. She said that Virginia, to the dismay of some students, is sticking with its policy of not allowing first-semester freshmen to transfer in, and that Virginia also wants to “act in good faith,” she said.

Stephanie Swisher, one of 14 Tulane freshmen who want to stay at Virginia, got 600 signatures on a petition in support of allowing Tulane students to transfer. Swisher said that she thinks at least those students who have nowhere to live should be given another semester to get things together. Wood said that if upperclassmen had applied to transfer by November 1, they would be considered, but she said that there are only 30 slots.

Ken Branson, a spokesman for Rutgers University, said that New Orleans students who were visiting were allowed to apply for admission if they sought to stay indefinitely. So far, five students from New Orleans institutions have registered at Rutgers for the spring. West Virginia University is also letting New Orleans students stay.

Officials at Lawrence University said that Tulane freshman Chris McGeorge would be allowed to stay if he were dead set on it, but that, for now, “we are shepherding him back toward New Orleans,” wrote Rick Peterson, a Lawrence spokesman, in an e-mail. For McGeorge’s part, though, he said he wants to at least give Tulane a chance, and that the free six-week term, from mid-May to the end of June, that Tulane is offering for student’s who pay the year’s tuition  is an added bonus.

Some students have already become heavily involved in extracurricular activities. Cristina Gugler, who was set to be a Tulane freshman, is already a staple on the Rollins University golf team, which has won three NCAA Division II titles in a row. Gugler said the Tulane coach would not give her a release to play elsewhere, though the golf courses in New Orleans were ruined, but Gugler appealed to the NCAA and got released. She will continue as a Rollins student.

But extracurriculars aren’t anchoring many Tulane students away from New Orleans. Two among the Harvard freshmen contingent took their cheerleading skills from the Green Wave to the Crimson. One of those, Susana Kostaras, of Boston, said Harvard is too close to home, and that she’s ready to “explore a different culture,” and excited about the unique experiences that the post-Katrina Big Easy will offer. “I think students should be allowed to stay if they want to,” she said. “But I don’t want to give up on the dream.”


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