Despite all the talk about financial aid for underrepresented socioeconomic groups in higher education, it seems the problem of socioeconomic diversity starts well before students even hit “submit” on their college applications. Too often, low-income high school students do not apply to highly selective colleges like Duke, even if they have a high chance of being admitted. A recent study by the College Board found that only 42 percent of lower-income high school graduates apply to selective colleges, even if they are likely to be admitted. Lackluster application rates highlight a weakness in recruitment efforts, but also provide an opportunity for Duke to reaffirm its commitment to attracting talent from a diverse range of socioeconomic groups.
Need-based financial aid is meant to eliminate the biggest hurdle for low-income students to attend expensive schools, and we believe Duke benefits from the variety of viewpoints that emerge in a diverse population. The fact that the University awards an average need-based financial aid package of $37,507 signals our commitment to giving lower-income students the opportunity to attend.
But the meager application rates signal either that the promise of ample financial aid is not fully communicated to students or that other factors dissuade these students from attending. The first possibility—a lack of information—can be addressed through better outreach to low-income students. Duke should devote more resources to promoting itself in low-income communities, perhaps offsetting the costs by holding, as it does in some cases, joint college fairs with other top universities. These information campaigns should fully dispel misconceptions about the costs of attending Duke, clarifying its need-blind admission policy, work-study opportunities and the possibility of waiving the application fee. The admissions office should work closely with high school counselors to encourage qualified students to apply.
The University may also consider alternative, inexpensive ways of promoting itself to low-income students. Duke can, for example, take advantage of alumni networks across the country to encourage Duke graduates from those backgrounds to speak with doubtful students. Hearing the benefits of attending an elite college and ruling out bad reasons not to might sway students to apply. A volunteer-based program, similar to the International Ambassadors program, would be an individualized and virtually costless way to spread the word.
At the same time, there are other reasons why low-income students do not apply to elite universities—reasons steeped in serious concerns rather than a lack of information. Many low-income students may be reluctant to attend a school far from their homes, deterred by high travel costs and strong family attachments. Others may be aware of need-based aid, but question whether schools truly practice it. This suspicion is like to intensify, as several schools have falsely claimed need-blind admission.Duke should address the possibility that low-income students have well-founded concerns about feeling out of place and unsupported at an elite institution. Our community should fight these concerns on a daily basis, working to ensure that Duke is a hospitable environment for students from all socioeconomic strata. Misinformation should be all that stands in the way of low-income students applying to Duke—and we should do our best to debunk myths and spread the word.