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Study finds improvement in low-income enrollment

Programs such as the University's new financial aid initiative may not produce greater opportunities for students from low-income families, according to a recent study.

The study by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education does, however, show that Duke is on an upward trajectory for low-income enrollment.

JBHE reported in December that rising endowments and large financial aid investments have failed to produce greater enrollment of low-income students at many top universities.

JBHE defines low-income students as those who receive federal Pell grants. The study lists Duke as one of the few top universities that have increased their percentages of Pell grant recipients in the last three decades.

Only eight of 30 highly ranked universities showed an increase in low-income enrollment from 1993 to 2006, and Duke is one of the eight. In 1983, Duke ranked last among JBHE's group of 30, with an enrollment of 8.4 percent low-income students. By 2006, Duke's low-income enrollment had grown to 9.6 percent, 19th in the index.

Director of Financial Aid Jim Belvin predicted the University's new initiative would continue to boost low-income enrollment at Duke. He said students would appreciate the initiative's replacement of loans with grants and its elimination of parental contributions.

"In North Carolina, you hear a lot of people say, 'I don't want to send my child to Duke, I'll send them to UNC,'" Belvin said.

"In a lot of cases it is now cheaper to send them to Duke."

Provost Peter Lange said it was too soon to evaluate the success of financial aid programs launched by a number of schools in recent months in attracting lower-income students.

He added that the University's new financial aid initiative would be combined with other strategies to attract low-income students.

"There will definitely be recruiting efforts and significant efforts to increase people's awareness of financial aid," he said.

The JBHE article states that "perceptions of institutional elitism or snobbery" in low-income communities can discourage students from attending top schools.

"I think that is something we need to work on, but I think that is less true than they believe," Lange said.

Belvin said effective communication of the new financial aid changes could address cultural concerns as well.

"I'm sure that some families feel that way, but in fact this is a place where they ought to be," Belvin said. "If going to college is not only about learning and growing but changing your future in many ways, families should consider that."

Senior Joycelyne Absolu, who receives a federal Pell grant, said a program at her high school encouraged her to apply to Duke. She added that there were no cultural factors that discouraged her from attending a top university.

"It is about being presented with the opportunities and then taking them," she said. "Cultural factors shouldn't deter [low-income students]."

The University's need-blind admissions policy prevents it from specifically seeking out low-income students, said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. He said the admissions office does not have access to financial information about students.

"We do actively look for signs that a student hasn't had all of the advantages that many of our students have had," he said. "This can come from a guidance counselor or from seeing a parent's occupation."

Absolu, however, said high schools should bear part of the burden for sending low-income students to top universities.

"I think it is on both parts, and if Duke is doing their part getting their name out there, then high schools can do their part with guidance counselors and parents putting the options out," she said.


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