Equal and Unequal

Louisiana and Mississippi may each get $95 million for hurricane-battered colleges -- despite vastly greater damage in Louisiana.
December 20, 2005

The House of Representatives Monday passed an emergency spending bill with $200 million for colleges affected by Hurricane Katrina. Most of the money will be split equally between Mississippi and Louisiana.

Gulf Coast colleges were uniformly thrilled to hear that help could be on the way, as many college officials feared that no federal aid would be forthcoming (aside from typical natural disaster grants that have been long in arriving and are available only to public colleges). But some had hoped that aid would be dispensed according to destruction, in which case Louisiana’s hand would surely trump Mississippi’s. Estimates compiled by Inside Higher Ed using data from individual colleges and from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities show that Louisiana institutions suffered about $1.37 billion in physical damages and lost tuition revenue, while Mississippi institutions lost about $360 million.

The bill calls for $95 million each to be given to the Louisiana Board of Regents and to Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. If the bill is approved by the Senate, the boards would dispense the money, preferably within 45 days. In Mississippi, colleges generally did not suffer the widespread physical damage that was prevalent in Louisiana due to flooding, but many students lost their homes.

The bill suggests that the aid in Mississippi be used as additional financial aid for students. The legislative language gives Louisiana more flexibility, saying that the money should go to institutions that were closed for at least a month, and can be used for “any purpose authorized under the Higher Education Act.” Another $10 million will go to institutions that accepted displaced students without demanding tuition.

E. Joseph Savoie, the commissioner of higher education for the Louisiana Board of Regents, said he was “thankful we received some consideration” in the bill. He pointed out that paying attention to national politics may shed some light on why Mississippi and Louisiana received the same amount of money for colleges. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi and chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and Sen. Trent Lott, another Mississippi Republican, were influential in the push to attach the Katrina aid for colleges to the Defense Department appropriations bill.

While some officials from New Orleans colleges expressed disappointment that aid will not be doled out according to damages, all were thankful that the Mississippi delegation pushed hard to ensure that there was any funding at all for colleges.

“I’m not going to concern myself with what other people got,” Savoie said.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu,  a Louisiana Democrat, pushed hard for money for Louisiana colleges. Sally Richardson, a spokeswoman in Landrieu’s office, said that “clearly Senator Landrieu would’ve liked more” for Louisiana colleges, though she too is glad that Cochran made sure some money was designated for colleges. Savoie said he hopes to use the money to entice back to class some of the 50,000 Louisiana students who were enrolled in public colleges before Hurricane Katrina but are not enrolled anywhere currently.

Elizabeth Barron, the vice president of academic affairs at Xavier University, said she was beginning to wonder if any aid was coming, but said that she was “disappointed that they chose to divide aid equally” given that Louisiana has 12 institutions that are currently closed, while Mississippi only has 1. “It’s not the division I would have chosen,” she said. She added that Louisiana institutions will also need more in the long term, because, while insurance will cover a large amount of wind damage from the hurricanes, flooding, which caused the most costly damage in New Orleans, will not draw nearly as much insurance money.

Because of that, Cynthia J. Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said that emergency supplemental aid will be a long-term process, and that another aid installment is expected next year. She noted that private institutions -- some of which in New Orleans suffered the most costly damages -- can only get aid from FEMA if they are denied loans from the Small Business Administration, and that even then it will not come easily.

Barron pointed out that the Mississippi colleges that suffered damages mostly suffered them to satellite campuses, so they have other viable buildings. The University of Southern Mississippi sustained far and away the greatest losses of any Mississippi institution, with about $280 million in damages and lost revenue. The university’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach was hammered, and lost approximately half of its 3,000 students on that campus. Still, the university has other sites and was able to remain open. William Carey College is the only Mississippi institution that continues to have a campus closed, although the college has multiple campuses.

Shelby Thames, president of Southern Mississippi, said that he is grateful that the state got $95 million but said it “is still far less than we need.” Thames said that, though overall physical damages to Mississippi institutions may have been less daunting than at some New Orleans institutions, many students lost their homes and jobs, and he is worried that “we’ll lose a generation who won’t go to college” unless they get significant aid.

Savoie said that Louisiana faces all the same problems, but that traditional hurricane damage was compounded by flooding. “We’ll have to make some decisions about which facilities to restore, and which not to bring back at all,” he said.

Officials at several New Orleans colleges said they hoped that future aid could be dispensed according to damages. Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said that Lott “was one of the only ones listening” to pleas by colleges. “He made the difference between some funding, and no funding,” she said.


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