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Nowicki awaits socioeconomic diversity report

Five months after the launch of the Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative, administrators are still working on the report they hope will parse how differences in class background affect Duke students’ experiences.

The Institutional Review Board approved of the proposed one-year initiative last summer. Now, those spearheading the project—modeled after the Women’s Initiative but on a smaller scale—expect that the study will extend into the 2011 -2012 academic year.

Alison Rabil, director of financial aid, and Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education, are currently conducting focus groups for the initiative. They said they will present a progress report to Steve Nowicki by the end of the Spring semester. Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, proposed and announced the project earlier last year.

More than 40 percent of Duke students receive need-based financial assistance. At the same time, approximately 21.6 percent of students come from families that make more than $300,000 a year, according to self-reported senior survey data compiled by the Office of Institutional Research from 2007 to 2009.

With Duke bolstering its financial aid program in recent years and the percentage of aided students expected to rise, administrators said it was time to take a closer look at Duke’s accessibility from the perspective of students with more modest means. Added expenses for classes, dues for clubs and greek organizations and the social implications of being on financial aid are all topics that the initiative hopes to broach.

But progress has been slower than planned.

“The issues are deep and I would rather have Donna [Lisker] and Alison Rabil take their time and do it right rather than rush and get some answer,” Nowicki said. “They’ve learned that some of the dimensions we were thinking about looking at aren’t as interesting, and there are new dimensions that we weren’t thinking of looking at that are interesting. As they’ve been thinking about focus groups, they’re sort of growing beyond our original thinking.”

Since the initiative was approved, four focus groups, each with five or six student participants, have been conducted and videotaped. They will be viewed at a later date for further analysis. Administrators had planned to do 10 focus groups over the course of this year with 10 to 12 participants in each, The Chronicle reported last September.

Nowicki, Lisker and Rabil said the complexity and sensitivity surrounding the topic of socioeconomic diversity has necessitated a slower-simmering approach than they initially anticipated.

“It’s clear to us that this is a complex landscape that we’re going to have to keep carrying forward into the Fall semester and into next year,” Lisker said. “I’d like the pace to pick up a little bit.”

Scheduling students willing to take part in the study has presented unforeseen challenges, officials said. Approximately 25 students receiving financial aid—who were part of a random sample generated by the Office of Institutional Research—have participated in the study so far. Administrators said they are also planning on targeting students not on financial aid to participate in focus groups, as well as possibly integrating a survey and interviews with parents and alumni into the report.

Lisker noted that 200 subjects took part in the Women’s Initiative to provide a full picture of the issue, and the SDI too will continue to move forward until administrators start hearing redundant data. Administrators said they hope the SDI sparks discussion on the often uncomfortable topics of money.

“Social class is a hard thing to talk about,” Lisker said. “Not that race is easy, or gender is easy, but we have more practice.”

Rabil and Lisker said that although they might not be able to change an embedded culture on campus, they will suggest concrete policy changes to ease excess burden, if there is any, for aided students.

“Students on financial aid always have to make choices—we always have to make choices about how we spend our money,” Rabil said. “But you really should be able to have as valuable an experience at Duke as any other student.... The purpose of the study is to check ourselves. Are we doing that?”

The implications of socioeconomic difference among Duke students has been largely untouched by the majority of the campus culture reports that have come out in the last decade. The Campus Culture Initiative makes no mention of the issue.

“The forgotten dimension has been socioeconomic difference,” Nowicki said. “It has been one factor all of these different studies haven’t really addressed squarely or at all.”

Administrators hope to report back to the Board of Trustees once they have crystallized findings.

“[Socioeconomic diversity] ought to mean that we look for talent in its many forms and once that’s discovered we’re going to make sure there are no financial hurdles for bringing that talent to Duke,” said Board Chair and Democratic state Sen. Dan Blue, Law ’73. “That ensures you’ll have the socioeconomic diversity that enriches the experience of all students.”

Lindsey Rupp contributed reporting.

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