A decade after Hurricane Katrina: how is higher education faring in New Orleans?

Jon Marcus travels to the Big Easy to see the varying fortunes of the city’s universities

August 29, 2015
Hurricane Katrina, Lan McClendon, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana
Source: Getty
Storm surge: the number of community groups has leaped in the wake of the costliest natural disaster in US history

In the late summer heat of the Gulf Coast, New Orleans appears to have remade itself entirely since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Appearances are deceiving, however; exactly 10 years after the costliest natural disaster in American history, some wards of the city continue to bear the scars.

The same is true of higher education. Some of the city’s eight universities are still struggling. But others have used the crisis to speed up reforms that they say offer a lesson in how the rest of US higher education could respond to ongoing financial troubles.

“The question I get asked all the time is, [without] a hurricane, would you have been able to make such dramatic changes?” said Scott Cowen, who was president of Tulane University from 1998-2014. Dr Cowen rode out the 2005 hurricane in a student recreation centre that had been left without water or power. “[And the answer is] more than likely, no. It would have been very, very difficult to make those changes as a university and make them as quickly as we did.”

Tulane, which is private university, says it suffered $650 million (£420 million) worth of hurricane damage and closed for four months, incurring huge operating deficits. Tulane responded by, among other things, streamlining its complex bureaucracy and eliminating 233 faculty positions, five undergraduate majors, and a similar number of doctoral programmes with very small, and unsustainable, enrolments. The university focused on programmes that enjoyed national prominence, and added more courses that connected Tulane more closely with the community – courses that Dr Cowen said mattered most to the campus.

“We realised that we couldn’t reopen [and be] exactly the way we were before the storm, so the question was, how do we make changes that enhance our academic quality while also lowering costs?” said Dr Cowen – a question he said that universities worldwide are gradually being forced to ask in the face of financial, rather than natural, crises.

Tulane decided to simplify by closing low-demand courses and those lacking a national reputation, and by better connecting to the city, “because the city was recovering and we could help each other”.

Tulane’s architecture students, as part of their academic training, now learn by designing and building model homes and green spaces, and the university has opened the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, which is dedicated to improving local schools. Tulane’s medical students work in the city’s community health centres, and the university introduced a public-service requirement for its undergraduates, encouraging them to team up with one of 850 community organisations – there has been a threefold increase in such groups since the hurricane – to provide more than 240,000 hours of local service a year.

But perhaps the biggest change at Tulane has been in the kinds of students who enrol. Pre-hurricane, young people were often drawn to the institution by the after-dark allures of Bourbon Street in the city’s French Quarter. Now, the university has started to attract students intent on community service. Despite the cuts to courses, enrolment is higher than before Katrina, graduation rates are up, and more students stay on in New Orleans after graduating.

“Our message of public service resonated with a certain group of students who said: ‘Hey, I want to go to Tulane,’” said Dr Cowen.

Permanent scars and rapid recovery

Other universities in New Orleans have fared less well since the hurricane. Some campuses were flooded with up to 11 feet (3.4 metres) of water. Others operated for years from temporary trailers while replacement buildings were constructed.

Private institutions with a predominantly black student body such as Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana have lost 44 per cent and 27 per cent of their enrolment, respectively, and struggled with combined damage worth more than $300 million – despite a $17.5 million gift to Xavier from Qatar and a visit from President Barack Obama. Another private institution, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, has seen its enrolment fall by 8 per cent.

Meanwhile, enrolments at the public Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans are down by about 17 per cent, and the institutions are performing so poorly that the Louisiana state legislature attempted to merge the two campuses. Fewer than 8 per cent of SUNO’s first-time, full-time students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, while 21 per cent of UNO’s do so, although both schools say that the completion rate formula unfairly fails to take into account their many part-time students. Both institutions have also been hobbled by huge cuts in the funds allocated to them by the state.

At the other end of the higher education pecking order, however, one institution has boomed: Delgado Community College, whose enrolment has more than doubled, to 17,000. Like other two-year colleges, Delgado awards associate’s degrees and certificates, and the city’s need for workers in vocations requiring such qualifications – primarily the building trades – has skyrocketed.

“We’re helping the residents of the region to get the job skills and the higher education they need to move on,” said Tony Cook, a spokesman for Delgado.

The public community college is also training people for industries new to New Orleans since Katrina, such as computer-assisted design and digital media, and the institution has started offering a compressed business degree to suit the city’s many new small business owners.

It, too, is doing this with declining state support. The proportion of Delgado’s budget that is underwritten by the state has fallen by two-thirds since Katrina, so much of the increase in its enrolment is to make up for that lost income; more students, more tuition revenue.

Redefining success

Delgado’s growth provides another “huge lesson” in the wake of Katrina, said Dr Cowen, who is also the author of The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America (2014).

“We’ve always described success in the US as going to college and getting a four-year degree,” he said. “That’s a mistake. That’s one pathway, but it’s perfectly OK to pursue a pathway where you get a career and a job in something like being an electrician or a plumber or a contractor.”

Dr Cowen added: “It’s unfortunate that it took a bona fide natural disaster for [US higher education] to learn these things.”

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Print headline: A decade after Katrina: how are campuses coping?

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