NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- For the first day of school, Alissa Bigger was in an upbeat mood.
Hurricane Katrina closed several major New Orleans colleges last semester, but the start of classes Tuesday at Tulane, Xavier and Southern Universities marked a welcome return to routine.
"I don't think I've ever been so excited about the first day of school. I'm so happy just to be back," said Bigger, a Tulane sophomore. "It's proving there's hope for the city. If the school can run, we can go back to doing normal things."
None of the colleges are fully up to speed, and it could be years -- if ever -- before all are back to their former size. But with their energy, optimism and free-spending ways, college students could be just what this struggling city needs right now.
"Most of you have returned at a time when many would have stayed away," jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said Monday night at an event on Tulane's campus welcoming back the city's students, before playing a set with a band that included his pianist father, Ellis.
"And now that you are here, you have the opportunity to set a new tone, not only a new tone for New Orleans, but ... a new tone for our nation."
Gov. Kathleen Blanco told the students their return was a boost for the city, and asked them to commit their summers to helping rebuild the state.
"Your state needs you," she said. "We need your minds, your good ideas, your contagious energy, your spirit, to rebuild."
The half-dozen or so major colleges in the city have plenty of problems of their own. Many classes will be held in trailers and hotel conference rooms while they continue to repair hundreds of millions of dollars of campus damage, and overall enrollment is considerably lower than before the storm. They have laid off hundreds of faculty and staff to try to meet budgets.
Tulane senior Clay Kirby, a mechanical engineering major, will be able to graduate but was set to protest cuts in his university's engineering program. "I love Tulane, and this decision is going to hurt Tulane," said Kirby, whose family has sent four generations of students to the school.
Still, more students have returned than initially feared -- including 88 percent at Tulane -- offering New Orleans the prospect of both an immediate economic boost and, down the road, an educated work force to rebuild the city.
An estimated 65,000 students attended New Orleans colleges before the storm, and about 40,000 lived in the city, according to the 2000 census.
Not only is Tulane the city's largest employer, but the reopening of the school will boost New Orleans' population 20 percent, President Scott Cowen said. Before Katrina, Tulane had 13,214 students -- 7,976 undergraduate and 5,238 in graduate schools.
In the short run, businesses from bars to bookstores should see a much-needed revenue boost. In the long run, the city hopes they will stay after graduation as a skilled work force.
"It's hard to imagine a major city growing and thriving without having universities," said Tim Ryan, an economist and chancellor of the University of New Orleans. "They will really give a breath of new life to the city."
Some neighborhoods around Tulane and Loyola are relatively vibrant, but Xavier, the country's only historically black and Roman Catholic college, is in an area of mostly abandoned homes and stores. Dillard, near the London Avenue Canal breach, was so badly damaged that it will not reopen there until at least next fall. Even then, it will almost certainly be an island of life in a sea of empty neighborhoods.
Marsalis, co-chairman of the mayoral arts commission that was announcing recommendations Tuesday for preserving the city's cultural heritage after Katrina, urged students to commit themselves to rebuilding the city.
But he also had sharp words for the region's politicians, urging the audience to "realize the importance of holding your elders and your peers accountable when it comes to rebuilding the city of New Orleans."
"Our challenge is to rebuild a great city in these times of unbelievable political callowness and corruption," he said.