If there were ever a way to provide equal access to education, it is through financial aid—or so we are told starting from our first college information session. Although this sounds appealing and even believable on an individual level, the reality of budget constraints rears its ugly head when we consider financial aid systemically.
Yesterday’s editorial urged students to think critically about the University’s financial aid policies for international students; today, we want to extend that discussion to the role of financial aid in enabling socioeconomic diversity.
For the most part, we affirm the conventional wisdom that financial aid is a university’s most powerful tool for attracting truly different students. And socioeconomic status is one of the strongest proxies for identifying a student’s background and forecasting the contribution he or she will make to campus life.
We applaud the Board of Trustees for ensuring that Duke’s annual budget reflects this priority: the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid received approximately $85 million this past year, despite the endowment’s losses in the recent recession, said Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid. Additionally, that office deserves credit for their commitment to truly “meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need” as more families need financial aid than ever after the 2008 downturn. These actions demonstrate that socioeconomic diversity is more than just a buzzword at Duke. It is a persistent commitment.
But even if the University’s financial aid has stayed afloat in the short term, certain macro-level trends threaten its sustainability—and that of socioeconomic diversity—in the long run. First, although Rabil noted that Duke has kept its tuition increases at approximately 3 percent per year—low compared to some of our peer schools—the rising cost of higher education everywhere makes college unaffordable in a way that cannot be addressed by financial aid forever.
Duke could have billions of dollars for financial aid and still not solve the underlying problem: the actual cost of higher education is becoming terrifyingly unaffordable. To be sure, need-based financial aid has improved accessibility and the high application numbers at Duke and its peer institutions indicate that, for some, no price is too high for a degree. The latter fact especially has eliminated any real pressure to trim the University’s costs.
But until a critical mass of colleges prioritize lowering tuition, higher education will be increasingly inaccessible for many. There will come a point when financial aid cannot continue to act as a Band-Aid, as it does now, because tuition increases drive up financial aid spending. Rising tuition costs will eventually squeeze out middle-income students, who benefit little from Duke’s financial aid coffers already and will be even more strapped for cash in the future.
Duke’s commitment to financial aid even in hard times is an encouraging sign. But budgetary constraints are a poor excuse to address serious problems: first, the lack of true socioeconomic diversity in the neglect of aiding middle-income families and second, the overall unsustainability of the higher education model. We understand that money is tight at the University, but—as the situation does not look to dramatically improve—perhaps some serious rethinking is needed.