Three years after Katrina, NOLA schools see apps rise

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Three summers ago, Ethan Olson packed his life into some boxes and evacuated his Slidell, La., home, swearing to himself he’d “never apply anywhere close to home.” Then a rising high school sophomore, Olson settled 100 miles northeast in Mobile, Ala., as his house joined hundreds of thousands of others flooded with water from Lake Pontchartrain.

Now 17 years old and months away from beginning college, Olson is happily going back on his word.

The high school senior was one of nearly 34,000 applicants to Tulane University, just one of the handful of New Orleans colleges now flooded with applications. Tulane’s teeming applicant pool represents nearly a 100-percent increase over last year and is the largest in the school’s history, said the university’s Assistant Director of Admission Jeff Schiffman.

“At this time our first year after Katrina we were calling people and hoping they would still be interested,” Schiffman said. “Now we’ve nearly doubled our application total. We’re really thrilled.”

Following an initial drop in applicants immediately after the storm, interest in the college has increased steadily. The year after the storm also saw a record number of undergraduate applicants, but Schiffman said Tulane reached its “tipping point” this year. “We’ve now well surpassed our pre-Katrina numbers,” he said.

Andy Benoit, director of admissions at the University of New Orleans, said his school has seen a similar trend, with 85-percent increases in both undergraduate and graduate applicants.

Benoit attributed some of the application influx to improved conditions in the city and aggressive public relations campaigns by both UNO and the state of Louisiana. But the key to the spike, said Benoit, has been the draw of volunteer opportunities to aid in the city’s recovery.

“We have some folks who have come to help in the rebuilding effort for the city, and a lot of those students are coming in and falling in love with the place,” he said. “We’ve seen a vast increase in our out-of-state applicants.”

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie agreed.

“There have been literally thousands of college students who have volunteered time – a weekend or even a semester – to help rebuild the city,” he said. “And many of them have felt this is something they want to really devote themselves to.”

Savoie also pointed to more than 10,000 state-funded “Return to Learn” scholarships, which offer displaced Louisiana students $1,000 over one year to study in New Orleans.

But for high school senior Elena Pavlova, no extra enticement was needed. Raised in New Orleans but now living in Gaithersburg, Md., Pavlova initially recoiled at the thought of college in her birthplace after seeing the devastation wrought by Katrina. But a visit to some old friends rekindled her love of the Big Easy.

“Everything is so nice there now. It’s so gorgeous and so unique,” Pavlova said. “And the stereotype about southern hospitality is really true – everybody there is so warm.”

Pavlova originally applied to Tulane as a “safety school,” but her visit and a $24,000 scholarship have made her “98 percent certain” she’ll enroll.

Though admissions officers said the passion of prospective students like Olson and Pavlova is encouraging, new opportunities have been accompanied by some new questions.

Schiffman said Tulane’s record-setting applicant pool will likely lead to a record-low admissions rate, as the university is looking to keep enrollment where it was before the storm.

“Typically we admit 40 percent” of applicants, Schiffman said. “But we’re still planning on having a freshman class of 1,400 students.”

The sudden jump in selectivity should only improve the quality of education at Tulane, Schiffman said.

Crescent City colleges have also tried to channel increased interest in the school into increased action in the community. Benoit said UNO encourages public service and provides volunteer opportunities to its students, and Schiffman said Tulane has introduced a community service requirement incumbent on all incoming freshmen from last year forward.

Schiffman said students take service courses for their first two years at the school and then embark on their own projects specific to their majors.

“A business major might help a small ma-and-pa shop get back on their feet after Katrina,” Schiffman said. “It’s a great opportunity and it benefits the students and the community.”

Though Olson and Pavlova said this attitude helped convince them to apply to Tulane, convincing family members was another matter.

“With Tulane, you’re of course concerned about another hurricane, rebuilding the city, crime,” said Garry Olson, Ethan Olson’s father. “And when you’re paying that kind of money, by golly, you expect some good bang for your buck.”

To ease the older Olson’s concerns, the pair took a trip to New Orleans to visit the school. “Even on the way he was against it,” Ethan Olson said.

But once they made it to New Orleans, Garry Olson came around.

“I never realized how intimate it would be,” he said. “The small classes, the accessible faculty – they’ve really done a great job addressing students’ needs.”

The highlight of the trip, however, was a one-hour open discussion session with Scott Cowen, Tulane’s president.

“He spoke very personally and just mingled with us,” Garry Olson said. “He even gave us his e-mail address.”

The younger Olson laughed. “Ever since then he’s been really gung-ho about Tulane.”

Despite increased student and parent interest, Savoie said the state hasn’t quite achieved its pre-Katrina applicant numbers.

“We were at 214,000 just before the storms, and this last fall we were back up to 198,000,” he said. “We’re still down about 16,000, and that’s almost all from New Orleans schools.”

Savoie said he expects it will be a few more years before interest in Louisiana schools returns to where it was before the storm.

“We saw this as a five-to-ten-year challenge,” he said. “It may be a while before the institutions are where they were before the storms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be high quality – just a little smaller package.”

Still, Savoie remained optimistic about the state of higher education in Louisiana.

“We’re still down from pre-storm numbers and will be for some period of time, but the trends are very positive and the projections are positive, so we’ve got to feel good about that,” he said. “New Orleans has a way of capturing you.”

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