The independent news organization of Duke University

The new arms race

The administration gave current and future Duke students a sizeable Christmas present this December: a $6.7-million boost to the financial aid budget, estimated to benefit some 2,500 undergraduates.

The new perks will eliminate the parental contribution for students from families that make less than $60,000 per year and will eliminate all loans for students from families that make less than $40,000 per year. The University will expect students still taking out loans to assume no more than $5,000 in debt each year for four years, and even less for those from families making less than $100,000.

Financial aid will also now cover a student's full cost of housing (instead of the cost of a non-air-conditioned double), adding approximately $1,300 to the aid packages of the majority of students on financial aid living on West Campus. Coupled with several other perks, this is the single biggest boon to Duke's financial aid program since Duke first committed to admit students on a need-blind basis and meet their demonstrated financial need. And for the students whose families fall within the affected income brackets, the responses fall into two categories.

For accepted and prospective students, freshmen, sophomores and juniors: "soweeeeeeeeet."

For my fellow seniors, who will be graduating without the benefit of the increase: "craaaaaaaaaap."

And I have to insert my foot into my mouth.

When the Financial Aid Initiative was inaugurated in 2005, I criticized it in The Chronicle on the grounds that it would not result in any tangible increase in financial aid benefits, only reduce the money Duke had to pay out-of-pocket to support its students. Now that the FAI (coupled with a 51-percent return on the endowment between 2005 and 2007) has allowed Duke to undertake these long-overdue initiatives, I get to eat my words.

$6.7 million next year and a likely greater sum in every subsequent year seem like a fair trade, however, so I'm not complaining. But at this juncture, it is important to understand the context and the import of this decision, as it is a milestone in the University's history.

Financial aid has expanded greatly over the past decade to include benefits for items such as summer school and study abroad. Aid has also increased for international students, who are admitted only if their demonstrated financial need can be met by the small portion of the financial aid budget specifically flagged for their benefit. And in 2001, the University stopped deducting up to 35 percent of the blue-book value of a student's car from her financial aid package.

As far back as the online Chronicle archives go, however, administrators underscored the claim that Duke "meets 100 percent of students' demonstrated financial need." To that end, the University saw no reason to significantly lessen the burden on students and their families; increases in the financial aid budget were meant to provide financial aid recipients with greater access to the offerings of the University and to make up the ever-increasing gap between students' "expected family contribution" and the total cost of attendance.

In a 2005 editorial following the inauguration of the FAI, President Richard Brodhead wrote, "When people can afford good education, they ought to pay for it, for there's nothing of greater value in our world." Now, however, University officials are singing a different tune.

"The strength of the University depends on its ability to select and recruit students on the grounds of ability, dedication and promise, not on a family's financial circumstances," Brodhead said in a news release accompanying the most recent changes.

Data available on the financial aid Web site details exactly how the new financial aid policy will decrease both the loan burden and the family contribution for students on financial aid, despite an expected 4.5-percent increase in Duke's current $48,240 cost of attendance for next year. For the first time, Duke is charging students and their families less than what it assesses them to be theoretically capable of affording.

This monumental shift is a direct result of a new "arms race" between top-tier Universities. In 2001, Princeton announced that it would replace all student loans with grants, prompting other universities to take similar steps over the next several years. Since Duke's December announcement, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania and Tufts have all announced further increases to their financial aid programs, many of which are now even more generous than Duke's.

Brodhead wrote in 2005 of the Financial Aid Initiative, "I want to prevent future collisions between two fundamental imperatives, our obligations to social openness and to academic excellence. Let's be clear: Students benefit from both, and students will have the most to lose if we ever have to sacrifice either good to the other."

Now, as top universities have to compete for top students by offering the most competitive packages, "social openness" and "academic excellence" are one in the same. So sit back and watch as America's top universities duke it out over who can offer the most financial aid to its students.

Soweeeeeeeet.

Elliott Wolf is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday.

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