When looking at the racial and ethnic composition of the student body, Duke has changed dramatically over the years.

But when factoring in socioeconomic status, Duke’s increase in diversity—as measured by an individual’s race and class—appears to be only skin deep.

In the last 15 years, the proportion of students identifying themselves as white has decreased substantially, from about three-fourths in 1994 to about half in 2008. During the same time period, however, the percentage of students reporting family incomes in the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution has remained relatively constant, hovering between 9 and 16 percent, based on data from Duke’s Office of Institutional Research.

“The only way this can happen is that we are drawing from minority families that are of greater means,” said Steve Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

Although minorities are more likely to come from families of lesser means than whites at Duke, they still come from affluent backgrounds. Of the freshmen reporting family incomes in 2001 and 2002, white students reported the highest average family income of about $230,000 per year, according to the 2006 Campus Life and Learning Project. Latinos, Asians and blacks reported average family incomes of $170,980, $153,401 and $118,316, respectively.

The mean income for U.S. households in 2001 was $58,208, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Higher education experts and administrators have acknowledged in recent years that socioeconomic diversity is an important goal—both as a means of promoting social mobility and broadening the perspective of the student body as a whole.

But elite universities are far from reaching this objective.

“There was one critic, Walter Benn Michaels, who observed that for most selective universities, diversity means having rich kids of all colors,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a non-profit public policy research institution. “And that’s clearly not enough. We need to try to have not only racial and ethnic diversity, but also a vibrant socioeconomic diversity.”

The percentage of students receiving Federal Pell Grants—need-based government grants mostly awarded to families with incomes below $40,000 and the most frequently used metric to measure economic diversity—has remained relatively constant at Duke over the last five years. From 2004 to 2009, the percentage of student receiving Pell grants declined slightly from 11 to 9 percent, according to data provided by Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of Financial Aid.

This issue is not unique to Duke. Using the percentage of students receiving Pell grants as an indicator, only 6 to 16 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds at top private universities, according to a 2010 report released by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Since 2004, only seven out of the top 30 universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report have shown an increase in the percentage of such students.

Affordability does not equal attendance

That the percentage of low-income students has not increased may seem at odds with Duke’s recent efforts to make itself more affordable. In the last five years, the University has increased its spending on financial aid by $23.5 million, eliminating the parental contribution for families with incomes less than $60,000 and replacing loans with grants for families with incomes less than $40,000.

Essentially, Duke is making itself more accessible, but low-income students are ultimately not sending in their deposits.

“[The cost of attendance] could be higher and [Duke] would still fill up,” said Stephen Rose, an expert in social class in the United States and senior consulting economist for Third Way, a think-tank that advocates for middle class growth. “If [Duke] went up to $70,000 and cut financial aid, it’s an institution that could get away with it, but they don’t believe that’s their mission. Duke is working hard to stay even.”

David Jamieson-Drake, director of the Office of Institutional Research, said that especially in light of the financial crisis, it is an accomplishment that the income distribution of the student body has remained constant over the last two years. He noted that the number of students coming from families with annual incomes of $150,000 and below would have decreased had Duke not increased its spending on need-based aid.

The Undergraduate Financial Aid Office is responsible for meeting students’ full needs, Rabil said. The goal of recruiting an economically diverse class, on the other hand, falls under the distinct purview of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

A small and competitive market

There are many reasons why low-income students are not attending elite institutions. One is fairly straightforward: most do not have the qualifications to do so.

“There are a lot of very talented high credential kids coming from the upper income strata, and as you go down to the income strata of less wealthy families, the number of kids with credentials to get into Duke goes down dramatically,” Nowicki said.

Getting into a competitive institution like Duke requires that students possess a certain set of credentials such as high SAT scores and grade point averages that correlate with socioeconomic status, Nowicki said. Indeed, a 2009 College Board Study revealed that every increase in $20,000 to family income is associated with an average 12-point boost in SAT score in each section of the test.

Because the pool of qualified low-income students is small, Nowicki said competition for these students is intense.

Moreover, even if Duke does increase its share of low-income students relative to its peers, it would not necessarily be solving the more pervasive national problem, Provost Peter Lange said.

“If more low-income students come to Duke and fewer go to Princeton… we are just passing them among us,” Lange said. “If we are just competing to have a more diverse student body than our peers, I’m not sure if it’s an accomplishment.”

But even among low-income students who are qualified to attend high-caliber institutions, few make it into the applicant pool.

“Where the biggest work that needs to be done is convincing low-income students to apply,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said. “The idea of applying to a college that costs twice as much as your annual income is a very strong psychological barrier to overcome.”

The meaning of ‘need-blind’

For domestic applicants, Duke is “need blind”—a misnomer, which Guttentag said does not account for Duke’s efforts to achieve socioeconomic diversity. When a University self-proclaims to be need blind, Guttentag said it means two things: that applicants who are able to fully pay for their education will receive no added advantage and that the institution sees socioeconomic diversity as key to its mission.

But one of the reasons Duke can afford to be “need blind” in the first place is because it knows that few low-income students will apply relative to the number of upper-middle- and upper-class applicants, said Thomas Espenshade, co-author of “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.”

Espenshade is also professor of sociology and faculty associate of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

Lange, however, said Duke has not designed its aid policies relative to expectations about the applicant pool.

Indeed, Guttentag said that when evaluating applicants, admissions officers consider a concept they call “distance traveled,” which portrays how much individuals have accomplished given their circumstances.

Because admissions officers do not look at household income, Guttentag said officers judge socioeconomic status by proxy, making educated guesses based on factors such as parental occupation, where an applicant attended high school and whether applicants are the first in their families to attend college.

Unlike other special applicants, however, there is no departmental advocate for low-income students.

“We’re relying on the good will of admissions officers,” Kahlenberg said. “I have no doubt that there are admissions officers who want to see more economic diversity, but they appear to be overwhelmed by other groups that seek to lobby for their constituencies.”

Over the years, Guttentag said low-income students have become more of a priority, and the University has expanded its efforts to recruit such applicants. Admissions officers have diversified the high schools they visit and also meet with non-profit organizations that focus on high-need students.

Recognizing the benefits of socioeconomic diversity, Nowicki said he hopes the University will continue to aggressively seek out students of lower means.

“My own feeling is that socioeconomic diversity, like gender and racial diversity, is an important source of difference in our country,” Nowicki said. “If we believe our role at Duke is to create the next generation of thinkers, we want them to experience the range of differences out there in America. Part of that is, can we actually change the income profiles of students at Duke?”

READ MORE ABOUT DUKE ADMISSIONS...

This story is the third of a three-part series that explored different facets of the admissions process. PART 1: GETTING IN looked at how the University's undergraduate admissions process functions.  PART 2: INSTITUTIONAL PRIORITIES examined how different goals the University sets for itself influence the admissions process.