The Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative—a joint project launched in 2012 by the Office of the Dean and Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education and the Office of Financial Aid—conducted a series of focus groups asking how students felt about the divide between high and low income students. In the subsequent report, students recommended changes to a number of policies including housing, dining plans and course-related fees. As a result, the University is working on changes that have so far included a new financial literacy website, a new faculty position and an updated policy on class-related expenses.
“My main impression was...how much time and energy those students [on financial aid] have to spend thinking about it, managing it, working in a way that non-aided students have the luxury of not worrying about,” said Donna Lisker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education.
The new financial literacy website was released over a year ago as a direct result of this initiative, said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. The site provides useful financial advice for students on a budget.
“The financial literacy website is giving students all sorts of information about how to manage money, how to think about loans, you name it,” he said.
Nowicki also said the initiative is spawning a new faculty position—tentatively named the Director of Access and Outreach—designed to support low income and first generation college students. The new director will report to both the financial aid and provost’s offices.
Nowicki explained that these are just steps in an ongoing process.
“[We] try to identify where the barriers are, where the challenges are, where the hurdles are and then step by step gradually remove those,” he said. “Progress is what we need to aspire to. There’s not an endpoint necessarily, but there’s measurable progress.”
The 2012 report noted that students on financial aid often have difficulties paying for class-related expenses such as textbooks.
“The general perception was that most faculty members aren’t aware that not all students can afford additional costs,” according to the report. “It would be helpful if faculty knew some general information about possible ways for students to cover these.”
Lisker said that the University has worked to eliminate “hidden fees.” All extraneous class-related fees, such as those for field trips, must now go through the bursar’s office so that students who qualify can be reimbursed.
Additionally, the report revealed that the dining plan is also a source of stress for lower income students. Some students in the focus groups said they felt restricted since they couldn’t afford to eat off-campus with friends, creating a socioeconomic divide between students.
“It’s a status thing to be able to say you don’t eat at the Marketplace,” said one of the anonymous students quoted in the report.
The problem presents itself as early as freshman year, when students have a limited number of food points.
Nowicki added that the University would like to eventually put another dining hall on East Campus to diversify freshman meal options, but it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, the administration is discussing modifications to the dining plans, but no immediate changes are forthcoming.
The issue of a gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds is one that any top college has to address, Nowicki said.
“Duke and any selective college or university is inherently an upper-middle class environment. And in fact, we kind of want it to be an upper-middle class environment because that’s the place where our students will end up,” he said. “The question is how much distance do different kinds of students have to travel to get to that environment.”