B-Schools' Post-Katrina Scramble

MBA students displaced by the storm have loads of questions, such as: Where -- and how -- will they continue their education?

By Francesca Di Meglio

Neily Buff, a second-year student at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in New Orleans, has been making phone calls and writing e-mails for the last few days to business schools around the country to find a new MBA program.

Tulane, even though reported to be minimally damaged by Hurricane Katrina, is uninhabitable as the city struggles to recover. Tulane President Scott Cowen is communicating to students and faculty through the emergency Web site and is reluctant to cancel the fall semester altogether, but TV images of a city under siege sent a clear message to students. They can't go back to Tulane -- at least not yet. "I'd like another school to say 'we'll take you in and give you our degree come May,'" says Buff.


  Buff is one of thousands of students trying to rebuild their lives in Katrina's wake. Freeman alone was home to more than 550 graduate and 740 undergraduate business students.

The American Council on Education, a national organization in Washington, D.C., that represents higher-education institutions, estimates that 75,000 to 100,000 college students in the Gulf Coast area are now displaced for the fall semester, and as many as 30 schools could have been physically damaged by the storm.

At least six graduate institutions -- Tulane, the University of New Orleans, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Xavier, Southern Mississippi University, and Alcorn State University -- have been affected by the hurricane, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington (D.C.)-based coalition of higher-education programs in the U.S. and Canada.


  It's too early to tell what will become of these students and their chosen schools. But some are already considering the possibility they won't be able to return for some time -- if ever.

"If there's no city, there's no school," says Rachel Chulew, a sophomore at Freeman, who'll be attending classes at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe for the fall semester. Carey was a logical choice for this Phoenix native who had already attended summer courses there.

In fact, many B-schools have jumped in to offer support and advice to displaced students. About 15 top-ranked B-schools -- including Goizueta Business School at Emory University and the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University -- have said they would welcome second-year MBA students from the affected areas, as long as they're in good academic standing. Most programs have denied entrance to first-year students because of the unique nature of core requirements at individual institutions.


  Many B-schools are offering reduced tuition and some are even bringing in professors. The McCombs School of Business at University of Texas at Austin has invited Tulane faculty to do research at its facilities for the semester.

Geoffrey Park, an associate professor at Freeman, headed to Austin at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 28, the day before the storm hit New Orleans. He and his family have only four days worth of clothing, two laptops, their tax returns, birth certificates, and passports, but he still has a job. They'll live with his sister in Chapel Hill, N.C., but he'll be taking up McCombs on its offer to let him do research. "I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity," says Park. "There's a much greater human tragedy unfolding in New Orleans right now."

Most schools that are lending a hand expect this to be a temporary fix and anticipate that students and faculty will return to Tulane and the other Gulf Coast-based institutions in time for the next semester.


  "We're making sure that what we're doing is helping, not hurting," says Kelly Christie, director of academic programs and student life at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. For example, the Owen school isn't going to permit displaced students to do independent studies because credits for such programs aren't easily transferable from one institution to another.

Chulew remains hopeful that she'll be able to return to Tulane sometime soon. "Students keep New Orleans running," she says. "We generate revenue and help out in neighborhoods that the city and federal government have forgotten."

Many questions remain for displaced students. How will second-year MBA students handle on-campus recruiting at different institutions? What's going to happen to their student loan applications, many of which are probably under water by now? Will they get to graduate at their original school? Will they even still want to graduate there?

No one has the answers yet. Certainly, many destinies will be changed by the force of Katrina. One thing's for sure: The disaster will be among the greatest case studies ever contemplated by business students.

Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Fort Lee, N.J.

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