The broad swath of devastation cut by Hurricane Katrina will take its toll on college students, and not just on the estimated 75,000 to 100,000 in New Orleans whose colleges are closed for at least the semester. The millions nationwide who receive federal aid stand to lose out in the current scramble to provide disaster relief from a national budget already overdrawn by billions of dollars.
Already, students and colleges in the region are getting the back of the hand when it comes to federal student aid. On Friday, September 16, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced a $2.6 billion education relief proposal, of which just $227 million is going to post-secondary programs. Even that figure is misleading; $100 million of it is federal student aid that’s already been distributed, which the government is graciously allowing students and closed colleges to keep. Most of the rest is being doled out in $1,000-per-head payments to institutions taking on new students. If you’re still looking for direct aid to colleges and universities forced to close by the storm, that’s right, it’s not there. Nor is there any sort of funding to encourage students and faculty to return to the institutions like Tulane University that are a major economic engine for New Orleans.
Needy students nationally stand to suffer too. The Higher Education Act, which includes most federal student aid programs, is still overdue for reauthorization. With Katrina and Supreme Court nominations to deal with, the House easily passed a bill in late September to extend the current law for three months. The House version of the new bill, passed in July and discussed in this column, included a historic $11 billion in cuts, which were originally designated, over student protests, for deficit reduction. On September 13, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions came out with a proposal student advocates like even less. Preliminary estimates show that this new version of the bill would save even more than the $11 billion, but rather than use this extra cash for two new grant programs for low-income students, which had previously been part of the Senate plan, it would redirect the money to hurricane relief, spread across hospitals, schools, and pensions.
Inside Higher Ed (insidehighered.com), an industry publication, described college representatives as “livid” and “apoplectic” about the proposal. “The Senate is asking struggling students across the country to be the rainy-day fund for the federal government,” fumed the State PIRG’s Higher Education Project in a press release.
Colleges and universities in the Gulf region learned about this new proposal when they met with Senate aides to discuss their apparently doomed “wish list,” which included $10,000 grants to displaced students. As of a 2000 law, nonprofits, including private colleges, are not eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds or low-interest loans. On September 25, The New York Times highlighted the plight of Xavier and Dillard universities, both nationally known, historically black colleges in New Orleans, both with small endowments and major damage from the storm. Xavier is requesting between $70 million and $90 million in the next year just to be able to reopen, let alone retain its faculty.
It’s true that the organizations and individuals now lining up for federal Katrina relief resemble a nestful of baby birds, hungry mouths agape. But neglecting the higher education sector as badly as current federal-aid proposals do appears shortsighted for a long-term effort at rebuilding. Right now, one of the few bright spots on the horizon for New Orleans is Tulane’s firm plan to reopen in January. The university is the city’s single biggest private employer, and unlike the big hotels and casinos, the bulk of jobs it provides are middle-class. Louisiana’s technical and community colleges are important for the region’s economic recovery too. Even as the fate of their own campuses hangs in the balance, they have already begun a free job-training program, offered on-site at hurricane shelters across the state, that will provide sped-up apprenticeships and certification in carpentry, plumbing, hazardous-waste removal, and other trades expected to be in demand as rebuilding progresses.
Meanwhile, the college students who stand to take the hardest blows from Katrina are—no surprise—the poorest in the area. Schools like Yale and Princeton have accepted students from Tulane and other area schools for the semester, often free of charge, with free room and board and other perks. Yet as of mid September, out of 21,000 Louisiana community college students whose education was cut short by the storm, only 635 had re-enrolled within the system. Delgado Community College in New Orleans expects no more than half its 17,000 students will return in the spring. That figure stands to be as devastating as any storm.