PERU, Neb. — When students start the fall semester at Peru State College in another week, some might be unaware of the destruction just a few miles from their classrooms.
Much of the campus occupies an oak-covered ridge high above and out of sight of the Missouri River. Even at its worst, the flood of 2011 never threatened to swamp Peru State's buildings or delay the Aug. 22 start of classes. Most of the nearly 1,000 Peru State students who attend classes on campus are unaffected.
But that's not true for 50 or so commuter students living in Iowa or Missouri who find themselves confronted by a blockade of flooded bridges that makes quantum physics seem simple by comparison.
It's a calculus college officials say they are trying to help the students solve. They want to make sure Peru State's enrollment doesn't become another flood casualty.
"Right now I don't anticipate a big change in enrollment," said Michaela Willis, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs. "Our faculty are really working with our students to figure out alternatives."
The college has a significant number of commuter students, most of whom live in Nebraska. They tend to be older than recent high school graduates and often hold jobs or maintain families, which makes driving to and from Peru a necessity.
Nebraska's oldest college has long appealed to them by stressing flexibility and affordability. For example, the college's tuition rates are lower than larger institutions in Omaha and Lincoln. It also boasts a class schedule that allows students to have most Fridays off.
In recent years the college has made a push to recruit more nonresidents to campus, whether they commute or not. The college is the only one in Nebraska to offer resident tuition to nonresident students, which produced a 37 percent increase in nonresident enrollment between 2008 and 2010.
Before the flood, most Iowa and Missouri commuter students crossed the river at the Nebraska Highway 2 bridge near Nebraska City or the U.S. Highway 136 bridge at Brownville. Many could reach the campus within 45 minutes.
Now portions of both highways remain under water. Even when floodwaters recede, roads officials expect to find that major repairs will be needed before traffic can resume.
So nonresident commuter students must drive a much larger loop to get to class, routing through Plattsmouth or St. Joseph, Mo. Some have seen their round-trip drive time increase from about an hour to five hours.
The Internet seems the obvious solution to save time and fuel. While online learning has seen great growth at Peru State, which has about 1,500 online students, some courses simply can't be offered online, Willis said. She cited some education classes and science labs as examples.
Commuter students have been instructed to contact their deans to work out arrangements. If possible, classes will be scheduled so students need to make the drive only two days per week instead of three or four. Other students will be able to take their courses at the college's off-campus site at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, taking a substantial bite out of their drive time.
A few students are considering relocating to campus for the fall semester. And it appears they will have a place to stay, although it could be tight, said Regan Anson, director of marketing and public affairs.
"We're not at capacity, but we're very close," she said.
The college has housing space for about 500 students. Work is under way to add 35 rooms to Morgan Hall dormitory by 2012. Off-campus rental housing also may be an option.
"We will definitely accommodate any student who would like to live on campus," Willis said.
Meanwhile, campus officials said, the flooding has caused a few Nebraska students who had been commuting to schools in Iowa to enroll at Peru State.
But that's not the way the college wants to boost enrollment.
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