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New Orleans Universities Struggle to Recruit Students after Katrina


Among the myriad issues involved in the recovery of Hurricane Katrina-affected colleges and universities, one of the most pertinent is the “mama factor.” That’s what Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman Francis calls the impact a parent’s trepidation has on enrollment.

Parents, who often have the final say on where their children will attend college, haven’t forgotten the images broadcast in the days after the hurricane slammed in to the city. The storm’s waters overwhelmed New Orleans’ levee system, flooding 80 percent of the city. Not surprisingly, some parents wonder if they’ll be putting their children in harm’s way by sending them to college in the “Big Easy.”

At Xavier, the mama factor has contributed to the low number of freshman committing to attend this fall. The school generally accepts 800-900 new students each year, but hopes to enroll 400-500 this fall.  

Universities that draw students locally also have a unique challenge: no neighborhood housing, and therefore, no students.

New Orleans institutions indeed will open this fall to fewer students, but not for lack of trying. Schools like historically Black Xavier and Dillard universities are using different strategies in an effort to woo students back.

“The nightly news doesn’t help because it covers negative stories. We’re up and running, and we need to get the message out,” says Scott L. Whittenburg, an associate vice president at the University of New Orleans, also faced with declining post-Katrina enrollment.

Some students are “laser-focused on coming to Xavier” because of its rigorous life sciences program and its tradition of sending more Black graduates to medical school than any other institution, says Warren Bell, associate vice president for the Office of Institutional Advancement.

For everyone else, it’ll take more financial aid and a little nudge.

“The big problem for us is the newbies. People who’ve already come will come back,” Bell says.

Xavier officials are actively calling and e-mailing students who have been accepted, but haven’t committed to the university. And they’re awarding more scholarship money to entice students.

To draw students back, Southern University at New Orleans, a commuter campus of 3,800 students before Katrina, had to become a residential enclave — not just to students, but their entire families. The historically Black institution worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up 400 residential trailers on vacant land it owned.

“My title should be mayor. My school is a microcosm of the city,” says SUNO chancellor Victor Ukpolo, who is dealing with just as many municipal service issues as academic services.

“The incentive of housing was instrumental to bringing them back,” Ukpolo adds. 

Parental fear about a repeat of Katrina and the plethora of college choices means schools have had to work twice as hard to recruit students. Tulane is expecting 1,000 freshmen this fall, down from the 1,400 target, and is now drawing students from its waitlist. Pre-Katrina, the university would normally enroll 1,600 each fall. It held twice as many on-campus visits and hosted live Internet chats featuring university president Scott Cowen.

“In other years we would not have much correspondence with parents directly,” says Dr. Richard Whiteside, Tulane’s dean of admissions. “This year we e-mailed them to make sure they understood what the state of affairs were on campus and around campus, about levee protection and health.

“There’s a lot of myth. A lot of people don’t understand what the situation is here. This is indeed a tale of two cities. If you look at Tulane, you’d be hard press to recognize that a hurricane ever took place. We were not as hard hit as other sections of the city,” Whiteside says.

While most schools are finalizing fall enrollment, Dillard is still accepting applications. It stepped up recruiting in areas where it already draws a number of students — California, Illinois and Texas. It’s providing more scholarship money and officials are personally reaching out to the 800 students who didn’t return after Katrina.

Freddye Hill, vice president for campus life and enrollment management, has been on the phone with nervous parents, explaining the university’s evacuation plan and alerting them to Dillard’s decision to postpone the start of the fall semester by one month to avoid the hurricane season.

Hill also tries to get across the renewed energy that has resulted from the hurricane. “We’ve rebuilt,” she says. “Every institution has to respond to challenges. Their responses create change, new energy and renewal. Dillard is going to be a stronger and better institution as we recover from Katrina toward a new Dillard.”   

—    By Toni Coleman

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