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Initiative will explore financial aid experience

This summer, the Institutional Review Board approved the Dean of Undergraduate Education’s Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative, which will attempt to assess and compare the Duke experiences of students who do and do not receive financial aid.

Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, said socioeconomic differences and their effects on campus life is “a dimension we need to know more about.”

“I’ve never run across a student on financial aid who says, ‘Duke just sucks,’” Nowicki said. “Some of them are deeply involved in everything about Duke... but then there are others who say, ‘I don’t know if I really belong here socially.’”

Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education, and Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid, will run 10 focus groups during the Fall and Spring semesters composed of 10 to 15 students. Six groups will be students who receive financial aid, and participants will be recruited from a randomly generated list of students who at least receive a Duke grant, Lisker said. The other four focus groups of non-aided students will also be recruited through random selection.

Lisker hopes to start recruiting focus group participants within a week to begin gathering qualitative data.

Nowicki announced the initiative to Duke Student Government, and by extension the student body, Sept. 9. But socioeconomic diversity at Duke has been a priority for the office since Nowicki took on his expanded role in 2007, Lisker said.

It has been on the minds of members of DSG as well, Spencer Eldred, a senior and DSG vice president for student affairs, wrote in an e-mail. He said DSG plans to involve student representatives and encourage broad student participation in the initiative.

This initiative is not the first of its kind at Duke. Nowicki and Lisker likened it to the Women’s Initiative, commissioned by former President Nannerl Keohane in 2003. Lisker worked on the Women’s Initiative and said the Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative will be modeled after the Women’s Initiative on a smaller scale.

For the time being, the Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative is only conducting a study, but it will not solve the issue entirely, Nowicki said. He added that he expects the study to spark “tangible concrete action items” that the University can then address.

And like the Women’s Initiative, Eldred said the focus groups will allow the University to move forward on the issue by defining the situation on campus.

“The initiative is not a solution, but it is a start,” Eldred said. “The most important way to address the problem will be to implement and evaluate what recommendations the initiative yields. We must also continue to re-evaluate the situation and implement solutions in subsequent initiatives until the problem is solved.”

But the most important thing this initiative can achieve is to start a conversation among students about socioeconomic diversity at Duke, Nowicki said. Change will require an impetus from students, and although Nowicki said the Women’s Initiative did not succeed in creating significant grassroots movement for change, he thinks this initiative has learned from its predecessor.

“You really need to get people to say, ‘This is something we care about, this is something we want to talk about,’” Nowicki said. “I’m satisfied as long as we’re moving forward. I think this could be an enormous win-win because students appropriately love Duke and this is about making Duke a better place.”

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