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New Orleans College Recruiting Runs Dry After Katrina

October 24, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

At college fairs in high schools and convention centers around the country, recruiters draw lots of questions from parents and prospective students. But these days Mark Rasic also is getting something else: plenty of wisecracks, skepticism and sympathy.

Rasic is the Los Angeles-based western representative for Loyola University New Orleans, a 5,500-student Jesuit school that escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina and is scheduled to reopen in January.

Still, like other universities in the hurricane-ravaged city, Loyola faces a monumental marketing task in trying to lure high school seniors from California and other parts of the country.

The university won't get an inkling of the payoff until freshman applications arrive, starting with an initial deadline Dec. 1.

In the meantime, crowded college fairs can be bruising experiences for those selling the virtues of New Orleans schools.

Even though New Orleans recruiters receive kind expressions of support from many parents and enthusiasm from prospective students, the zingers make a hard task even harder.

During a fair at Simi Valley High School last week, a mother attending the event with her daughter stopped briefly before Rasic's display table and asked, "Do you offer swimming programs?" A little later, a man inquired, "Are you guys underwater?"

For his part, Rasic, 36, a former middle school and high school English teacher, gamely maintains an upbeat attitude. When he hears the jibes, "I just smile," he said. "Sometimes people just need to say something."

Rasic also is quick to point out that Loyola, like its neighbor Tulane University, suffered relatively light damage and is well along in its preparations to reopen. Still, parents occasionally are perplexed by his optimism.

"Sometimes I sense that they don't believe me," he said.

When Rasic has more extended conversations -- typically during daytime visits to high schools -- he tries to highlight a bright side of the disaster: more opportunities for community service.

"Students who really want to see what it's like to go out there and help people rebuild their lives ... they're going to have experiences like you couldn't have anywhere else," Rasic told students at Marymount High School, on the Westside near UCLA.

For some of Rasic's counterparts, it's not easy to remain cheerful.

"It's clearly the most trying situation I've ever encountered in my 20 years of working in higher education," said Darren Rankin, vice president of enrollment for Dillard University, a historically black school in New Orleans that was hard hit by Katrina. "We're dealing with a real public relations nightmare here," he added.

Rankin predicts that Dillard will lose many of its current freshmen and sophomores when it reopens, on a temporary basis, on the Tulane campus in January. And when Dillard greets its next freshman class next fall, Rankin predicts there will be only 300 first-year students, versus the usual 700.

"New Orleans, contrary to popular opinion, isn't easy to recruit to anyway because of the whole crime issue and problems that New Orleans has been having for some time, even before Katrina," he said. "But this time around ... it seems that the paranoia and concern are on a different level."

On the other hand, Dave Seaver, who oversees the recruitment staff for Tulane, said his university was encouraged about the attitudes of prospective students.

High school counselors, he said, tell him that parents are expressing reservations about sending their children to New Orleans, but the students themselves appear enthusiastic.

Seaver, who two weeks ago wrapped up a 10-day recruiting trip to Los Angeles, said the pivotal time will come just before the beginning of May, when students must indicate whether they will attend.

"If we can have some creative programs on campus that will entice admitted students to at least take a look at us, I think that's going to be the key," he said.

Loyola's Rasic, though, first has to get past some logistical challenges as he makes his rounds from high school to high school. During his stops, Rasic hasn't been able to distribute a recruiter's typical stock in trade, color brochures. His supply is in New Orleans, inaccessible. He has relied instead on black-and-white photocopies.

And when Rasic has hit the road in California and in other Western states, he has gone without his usual prospecting intelligence; he hasn't been able to call up the files, stored on the computer system at Loyola, about teenagers who previously expressed an interest.

At some high schools that Rasic visited, the only ones interested in speaking with him were the college counselors.

Rebecca Wandro, director of college counseling at Convent of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic high school in San Francisco, said two seniors in her 54-student graduating class had previously expressed a strong interest in Loyola of New Orleans.

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