Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a story detailing Duke's admissions practices, which grant 3 to 5 percent of the student body admission not based on their academic or other personal qualifications but solely because of their family's wealth or connections. That is, out of every entering class, between 45 and 75 students are admitted because their parents are rich.
The Wall Street Journal should be commended for bringing this issue to the forefront of national discussion on admissions policy. Although all universities engage in some type of quid pro quo admissions in exchange for donations, Duke deserved to be singled out because it engages in these types of transactions to a greater extent than other top national universities. This is because Duke is a younger school with less of an established past and because Duke's endowment is significantly smaller than the endowments of the University's major competitors.
In some sense, letting in the underqualified children of potential donors is the way that universities grow and develop. With the money donated by the parents of these 3 to 5 percent of students, the University can build new facilities, hire professors and provide more scholarships, all of which benefit those students at the University who are here because of merit.
Hence, letting in rich people's children is not wrong ipso facto, since the monetary benefits to the University could outweigh the adverse impact these underqualified students inevitably have on the intellectual life at Duke. What the University faces, then, is a balancing act, weighing the potential donations against the child's lack of qualifications.
Fortunately, Duke University has struck a better balance between these priorities in the past several years. Two years ago, The Chronicle obtained secret documents detailing how the University let in about 120 applicants a year for development reasons. The Wall Street Journal's number of 3 to 5 percent is a significant reduction in the number of development spots over only a couple years. This change was clearly a step in the right direction.
As it stands now, however, the University has a number of balancing acts to perform in the process of admissions, with admitting children for development reasons being just one of a number of complex issues. These issues include admissions for athletes, race-based preferences, preferential treatment for the children of alumni and North and South Carolina quotas. In all of these cases, the University lowers its normal academic standards in order to accomplish some other goal
As time goes on and Duke becomes more wealthy and better established as a top-flight institution, the need for development spots will diminish, and hopefully the University will continue to reduce the number of spots as the need for capital lessens.