Image: Tulane student
Sean Gardner  /  Reuters file
Elizabeth Spector, who is entering her second year at Tulane University, hauls boxes across campus to her dormitory in New Orleans on Saturday. Tulane will resume classes on Tuesday.
updated 1/16/2006 5:35:05 PM ET 2006-01-16T22:35:05

With their energy, optimism and free-spending ways, college students could be just what this struggling city needs right now.

New Orleans is reopening for business as a college town, though on a reduced scale. Musician Wynton Marsalis was scheduled to welcome back students at a concert Monday night at Tulane University, and classes at Tulane, Xavier and Southern Universities start on Tuesday. Loyola and Dillard started last week.

Many classes will be held in trailers and hotel conference rooms while campus repairs continue, and overall enrollment is considerably lower than it was before Hurricane Katrina.

Still, more students came back than initially feared — including 88 percent at Tulane. While no one believes college students can single-handedly revive New Orleans, few can imagine how the city could ever come back without them.

“I think they’re looking for us to help rebuild,” said Alicia Figueroa, a Loyola University junior from Miami, stepping off a Loyola bus tour Saturday of the city neighborhoods hardest hit by the flood. “I feel like just by being here, we’re giving a hand to the city. Even just going to the Winn-Dixie and buying groceries, that puts money into the city.”

Students returning sooner than other residents
An estimated 65,000 students attended New Orleans colleges before the storm, and about 40,000 lived in the city, according to the 2000 census. Because the overall population will probably return more slowly than the students, New Orleans will be even more of a college town than before.

Not only is Tulane the city’s largest employer, but the return of its students will boost New Orleans’ population 20 percent, President Scott Cowen said.

In the short run, businesses from bars to bookstores should see a much-needed revenue boost. In the long run, the city hopes they will stay after graduation as a skilled work force.

“It’s hard to imagine a major city growing and thriving without having universities,” said Tim Ryan, an economist and chancellor of the University of New Orleans. “They will really give a breath of new life to the city.”

For now, though, it takes a leap of faith to imagine a thriving college life on several of the campuses.

The neighborhood around Tulane and Loyola is relatively vibrant, but Xavier, the country’s only historically black and Roman Catholic college, is in an area of mostly abandoned homes and stores. Dillard, near the London Avenue Canal breach, was so badly damaged that it will not reopen there until at least next fall. Even then, it will almost certainly be an island of life in a sea of empty neighborhoods.

Revitalizing New Orleans' energy
The school presses ahead, insisting that, somehow, a vibrant neighborhood will grow up again around the campus.

“There is a wonderful thing that happens around a campus, and it is almost inexplicable,” said Brown University President Ruth Simmons, a Dillard alumna who has been working closely with the school since the storm. “It is very hard to find a campus that is not surrounded by a viable community.”

There is some worry that, despite all the talk of a new ethos of public service, students living in the better-off neighborhoods will retreat to their own bubbles.

“They come back and expect it to be, ‘Uptown New Orleans, let’s have some fun,”’ said Kevin Caldwell, busily serving drinks Saturday to dozens of football-watching Tulane students Saturday afternoon at a bar near campus. “That ain’t what Uptown New Orleans is about any more. Uptown New Orleans is about rebuilding a city.”

Caldwell said he was pleased to learn Loyola was taking students on bus tours of the most heavily damaged parts of the city.

“They’re welcome back, but they’ll have to be tolerant, because we’ve been here 4½ months” struggling to rebuild the city, he said. “They have to remember that.”

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