It took Mike Jones a couple of years in high school on the Eastern Shore to choose a college. When he switched majors to launch a career in the music industry, he started another long process of weighing programs and filling out applications, finally transferring to Loyola University New Orleans last week.
Then the hurricane hit.
In the past few days, he got himself another college: By yesterday morning, he was in class at Baltimore's Loyola College in Maryland, learning about philosophy.
As tens of thousands of students displaced by Katrina scramble to find new schools, colleges are opening doors, bending rules and extending deadlines to accommodate them. Like Jones, many students are ending up at schools a lot like the ones they left behind.
Most students, it seems, returned to their parents' homes and looked for a similar education. Some sought schools they'd considered in high school; some relied on partnerships set up quickly between sister schools such as the Jesuit colleges and historically black universities that eased admissions and tuition complications.
Across the country, most colleges have offered to take in displaced students. "We are witnessing an unprecedented outpouring of support to enroll students," said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education. "We've never seen anything like this before."
At many schools, staff worked through Labor Day weekend to figure out financial aid, course loads, registration and housing. As if that weren't enough, schools far from the affected area are looking to the many challenges ahead and talking with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about money for relief and flexibility on student loans; students whose families need housing, too; and the looming sense that universities might be asked to become a haven for families with nowhere else to go -- the next Superdomes.
Some schools, such as Louisiana State University and Centenary College of Louisiana, already are helping, said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "But the guess is, as people continue to stream out of New Orleans and southern Mississippi, cities like Dallas, Houston, Baton Rouge are going to be overwhelmed. The people in charge of relief are going to be looking for displacement centers and coming to our institutions."
Many schools closest to the Gulf Coast have been inundated with new students: Texas A&M University has about 125 people sheltered in its basketball arena, has enrolled more than 250 students and has opened classes to as many as 1,000 students. Southern Methodist University has taken in more than 200 students, with administrators there surprised by the demand and reluctantly feeling that they had reached capacity as they worked last night.
"Some students walk in and haven't had enough food or water" for days, said Ron Moss, dean of admission; the school has kept the office stocked with pizza and drinks. "We hand them an SMU T-shirt, and they say it's the first time in a week to put on a clean shirt."
Schools as far away as Tel Aviv and Montreal opened their doors. Schools as competitive as Harvard and Yale offered space to 25 or so undergraduates, and many others far from the Gulf Coast saw enrollments swell: Boston College took 150, Syracuse took 300.
National higher education organizations set guidelines urging schools to find ways to help that would not further hurt the damaged schools, by taking people in as visitors who will return -- with their tuition dollars. Many universities have waived tuition, and some governors offered in-state tuition rates at public universities.
In the past week, the organizations also have set up Web site clearinghouses to match students' and colleges' needs and offers; www.campusrelief.org went online yesterday afternoon, and www.naicu.edu/HEA/KatrinaEfforts.shtml joined local school sites and message boards crackling with entries.
For now, schools are busy enough trying to get students into classes before they miss too much of the semester.
As of last night, the University of Virginia had 140 mostly Virginia residents enrolling as visiting students for the semester. Georgetown University Law Center took in 29 students from Tulane and Loyola of New Orleans. They went through a mini-orientation Monday and then joined current students for a barbecue. Howard University's Louisiana club welcomed arriving students yesterday.
Just about every school in the Washington area offered to help.
Loyola in Maryland accepted 100 students. Forty have enrolled, and the others are going through advising this week to see which courses they could take.
"They're probably weighing their options," said Loyola spokesman Jamie Smith, since schools were getting packages together.
After going from New Orleans to San Antonio and then home to Maryland, Jones began looking at schools immediately. He considered Anne Arundel Community College initially, worried about the $15,000 or so his parents had spent on this semester's tuition.
Washington College, in his home town of Chestertown, Md., called him. So did Northeastern University. Then he started hearing that Jesuit colleges would honor the tuition already paid. He lost his guitar, his mandolin, his keyboard, his photos. But he's safe, he's home and now he's back in class. In the spring, he hopes, he'll be back in New Orleans.