Feature

Loyola, NOBTS Use Tech To Return to Pre-Katrina Numbers

A huge increase in freshman enrollment numbers for the fall semester has Loyola University in New Orleans pleased with its efforts to rebuild its student body after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) is also looking at strong enrollment numbers, three years after the hurricane and its aftermath of flooding devastated New Orleans.

One recurring theme in the recovery of New Orleans universities: technology tools that have helped them gradually rebuild enrollment numbers since the hurricane, which struck in August 2005.

The University of New Orleans (UNO), for example, has managed to steadily pull enrollment back up from a huge loss of students after the disaster.

Other universities are reporting similar successes. According to Keith Gramling, director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola University New Orleans, as of May 1, a traditional enrollment measuring point for many schools, 728 new students are set to enroll for this fall, up from 525 last year. "It's a huge increase," Gramling said, "that puts us right in line with where we were before the storm."

A combination of variables have come together to help schools regain their numbers, including more positive news images of New Orleans. Some of that message has come from the schools themselves, although Gramling said that he is finally seeing better portrayals of the city in the press as well. Also, this is the first class since 2005 for which universities could conduct a full 18-month recruitment cycle. Last year, storm news was still impacting his initial outreach to high school students, Gramling said.

One thing that stands out for several schools, including Loyola, UNO, and NOBTS, is the strong role technology has played in luring students back to New Orleans, traditionally a popular city for college students. Those efforts include Web sites that show positive pictures of the campuses and city, as well as sophisticated e-mail tools to get targeted messages to potential students and parents, and, at NOBTS in particular, strong online learning offerings.

Loyola, for example, sent a series of HTML e-mails to a pool of prospective students, highlighting events on campus, from community service to social justice issues to interactions with faculty, along with news about the city. Like the University of New Orleans, Loyola used a product called GoalQuest to build enrollment through electronic newsletters aimed at both parents and students, discussing issues such as the transition from high school to the university, academic achievements and life in New Orleans. The newsletters tied to a social networking community building program for admitted students called UPeers, which helps prospective Loyola students begin to connect with each other.

"We found the community building tool to be extremely beneficial," Gramling said. As an indication of the appeal to students of social networking, 1,296 out of the 2,225 admitted freshmen for this fall were registered UPeers users. "They've ... put up nearly 600 photos, started 187 discussion groups, [and] viewed each others' profiles over 105,000 times," Gramling said. "We were amazed."

The electronic community Loyola students are building before they ever set foot on campus helps with other issues as well. Eighty-five percent of first-year students will reside on campus, and, using the social networking tools Loyola has made available, many students are able to decide ahead of time whom they will room with.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is another example of how technology has helped a university in the beleaguered city to retain students. NOBTS was perhaps the only educational institution in New Orleans that continued teaching all of its classes despite Katrina, according to Provost Steve W. Lemke, mostly through its Blackboard online course management system. Post-hurricane, that sometimes meant faculty were conducting classes over the Internet using a notebook computer and a wireless connection at a local Starbucks.

Katrina largely destroyed the campus, flooding most buildings and making the campus inaccessible for many weeks. Immediately, Lemke said, NOBTS moved all its classes online, from undergraduate courses to Ph.D. offerings. It helped that every faculty member had training is using Blackboard online, at least for elements such as threaded discussions or online quizzes, which are sometimes included with face-to-face classes at the school.

A generous deal with Dell helped, Lemke said, in quickly getting a fully equipped laptop to every faculty member, many of whom lost their only computers, desktop models, in the flooding. "When we evacuated for the hurricane," Lemke said, "they didn't take their computers. For the first month or two, we had to get through National Guard checkpoints" just to access faculty offices. Faced with that sort of challenge, laptops were quickly distributed. Now, they've "become a standard" with faculty, Lemke said.

The school was also helped by the fact that only half its students are located in New Orleans; it has 17 extension centers across the southeast. And the seminary was already "pretty tech savvy for a theological seminary," Lemke said, with tools that included compressed video feeds to link up with extension students.

Before Katrina, the school had about 3,800 students, making it one of the largest accredited seminary schools in North America. It managed to maintain those numbers throughout the Katrina debacle, Lemke said. "We feel pretty good about that."
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