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Spread the merit scholarship love

Of the nation’s elite universities, Duke is among the very few that offer merit-based scholarships to outstanding incoming students. Most notably, none of the Ivy League schools—which are often cited as Duke’s peer institutions—publicly offer merit-based aid.

What then makes Duke different? In terms of both prestige and resources, Duke currently occupies the territory between excellent public universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which offer highly prestigious merit scholarships, and those places like Harvard University and Princeton University that are often considered the best institutions in the country and even the world.

As Duke continues to expand and carve an established niche for itself in the landscape of higher education, merit scholarships play a useful role in bettering the University. But, as with any major expenditure, it is imperative that we critically examine these awards, especially given that the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows spends thousands of dollars each year to benefit only a small percentage of undergraduates.

The pertinent questions, then, are twofold. Does the presence of merit scholarships at Duke result in inequity among undergraduates? We believe the answer is yes, though less so than is often assumed. Second, with this inequity in mind, do merit scholarships harm the Duke community more than they help? We believe the answer is no, for the time being.

The $200,000 or more over four years received by merit scholars is a lot of money. But tuition coverage is largely upfront costs; much of the real value of being on a merit scholarship, at least in principle, derives from the special resources one gets for the four years after matriculation—resources that advantage their Duke educational experience.

It is widely assumed that there exists a wall of privilege in terms of on-campus resources that divide the scholar community from the rest. This is only somewhat accurate. It is true that summer programming and funding are major advantages, but virtually all other programs that scholars participate in are open to all Duke students in various forms. For example, small dinners with faculty members has been replicated by the FLUNCH program. Eric Mlyn, former director of the Robertson Scholars Program, helped create DukeEngage, which bears close resemblance in principle and structure to the Robertson Program’s summer opportunities. Likewise, DukeImmerse, Duke INtense Global and new programs such as Duke in Silicon Valley and Duke in D.C. are indicative of a University-wide effort to bring the resources typically associated with merit scholarships—such as international travel and alumni networks—to the whole undergraduate community.

Another perceived division is one of access to information. Scholars are, for example, automatically registered for certain OUSF listservs that can point them to relevant information sessions, grant applications and other opportunities. However, the same information is listed for public use on OUSF’s website and can be accessed by any undergraduate student.

Continuing this trend, it is conceivable to think of a day when Duke can do away with merit scholarships altogether, thereby increasing the equity of the undergraduate experience. But until the University has cemented itself alongside the world’s best institutions—a goal toward which programs like DukeEngage are instrumental—merit scholarships will continue to prove useful for drawing the best students and producing distinguished graduates.


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