Financial aid is an easy policy not to question: Through fuzzy rhetoric like “100 percent need-blind” and “improving affordability,” colleges and universities often skirt close scrutiny of their programs. The reality is more complicated: While financial aid is important to Duke and its peers, the decisions behind it are complex and, in many instances, controversial. In this two-part editorial, we explore some salient and divisive questions regarding financial aid. Today, we look at implications for international students, and Tuesday we will explore impacts on different socioeconomic classes. While we do not claim to have any clear solutions, it is important to crystallize the decisions being made and what they imply about the University’s priorities.
Like many of its peers, Duke maintains a need-blind admissions policy for American citizens and permanent residents but not international students. The chances of admission for international students who apply for aid are markedly lower than their American counterparts. Six schools, including Amherst College and Princeton University, offer universal need-blind admissions. Director of Financial Aid Alison Rabil offered two justifications for Duke’s policy. First, she argued that thanks to federal funding, it is cheaper to provide aid to Americans than international students. In addition, Rabil claimed the University had a commitment to prioritizing American admits in order to support the country’s economy and system of higher education.
It is tough to find fault with the first argument. If it is less expensive per head to provide need-blind admissions for American students, that means the University through prioritizing Americans is able to provide a college education to more students. Since a primary metric of success of the financial aid system ought to be to help as many students—domestic or international—as possible, it seems fair to make this tradeoff, even if it means international students are not treated equally.
But Rabil’s second justification caused some debate. On one hand, Article 1 of our University bylaws contains a commitment to serving the state and the nation. Similarly, Duke receives federal funding, so it could be argued that taxpayer contributions should primarily be used to benefit American students. The idea that an American university has a commitment to prioritize American students in the admissions process, just as it does students from North Carolina, is key to this argument.
On the other hand, Duke has made a point of prioritizing diversity in its student body, and international students play a key role in fostering a more interesting and lively student community. If we take diversity in its broadest sense, treating the vast majority of the global population differently in admissions than a select nationality may run counter to some important institutional goals. It is difficult to reconcile Rabil’s view that Duke should increase its mix of international students with the idea that financial aid should prioritize Americans.
All told, we were impressed with the efforts of the financial aid office to clarify its policies and allocate uncertain resources wisely. But we should not refrain from questioning some of the assumptions behind financial aid, and the discussion regarding international need-blind admissions is not at all a bad place to start.