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Duke stands alone among peers in merit-based scholarship priorities

As another year of regular decision admissions approaches, Duke will look for something most of its peer schools do not—which candidates should be considered for full-ride merit scholarships.

Duke is the only university to offer full-ride merit scholarships among those ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News and World Report. Though some critics of merit aid programs say the scholarships can take resources away from students who need financial help most, University administrators say this is not the case for Duke. The University maintains eight merit scholarship programs while also growing the amount that is given to students with financial need, according to Melissa Maouf, director of the Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows.

“Our merit communities are a mixed bag, economically all over the place,” Malouf, wrote in an email Wednesday. “All students to apply to Duke may be considered for a merit scholarship—rich or poor or in between.”

Three of the eight scholarship programs Duke offers—the Angier B. Duke Scholarship, the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship and the Robertson Scholarship—solely take merit into account. The remaining five scholarship programs consider a mixture of merit and need.

Financial resources for merit scholarships

Funding for the scholarships comes almost exclusively from the Duke Endowment and private donors, Malouf wrote.

The Robertson Scholars Program, for example, is privately funded by the Robertson foundation. Allen Chan, the program's executive director, noted that the program is a “special case,” as it does not use University financial resources, which may otherwise be allocated to need-based financial aid.

This contrasts with the situation at several schools which have ended merit aid in recent years in favor of using the funding to expand need-based aid packages, such as Franklin and Marshall College and Hamilton College.

Duke's need-based financial aid scholarships are actually currently expanding—without detracting from funding for the merit programs, Malouf said.

The University currently ranks behind several of its peers in terms of need-based financial grants. Of the U.S News and World Report top 10 schools that provided information to the 2013-14 Common Data Survey, Duke presented the lowest percentage of students receiving need-based financial grants.

According to the survey, 39 percent of Duke students receive need-based financial grants, compared to 60 percent at Princeton University and 49 percent at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2013, Duke provided merit scholarships averaging about $56,000 per year to 314 students, nearly 4 percent of the undergraduate body, according to the 2013-14 CDS survey.

Merit aid and socioeconomic diversity

Many students on merit aid apply and qualify for need-based financial aid before they receive merit scholarships, Malouf said.

Duke’s need-blind financial aid policies allows the B.N. Duke Scholarship Program to offer aid to students based on more specific criteria, wrote Charles Thompson, director of the program, in an email last Tuesday. The scholarship emphasizes leadership based in the Carolinas—only selecting students who live in North or South Carolina.

“We believe that if any student can qualify for admission to Duke that the University will provide a way for them to study here,” Thompson wrote. “That frees us to select students based on their broader commitments to social change.”

Although the B.N. Scholarship Program does not take into account financial need, scholars in the program nonetheless come from a diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds, Thompson wrote.

“I won’t go into particulars about individuals, but suffice it to say that we have had a number of first generation college students whose families have recently immigrated here from very poor countries,” he wrote. “They were not selected because of need, but because of their incredible commitments to being excellent scholars while serving broader publics.”

A competitive edge

Merit aid has made it possible for junior Kari Barclay, an A.B. Duke Scholarship recipient, to attend Duke. Without the scholarship, the financial package offered by the University would not have been enough, he said.

“The opportunity to graduate debt free from college is something that I couldn’t have without my scholarship at Duke,” Barclay said. “In that way, the A.B. Duke Scholarship has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me post-graduation, especially going into a field as volatile and underfunded as the arts.”

Barclay noted that wealthier students offered the scholarship, for whom financial need is less of a deciding factor, are more likely to refuse it in favor of attending Ivy League universities.

Finances were a “pretty big” factor in sophomore Grace Li's decision to attend Duke, she said. Li—also an A.B. Duke Scholar—added that though she did not disbelieve that the University met 100 percent of demonstrated financial need, college can nonetheless be financially difficult for students from middle-class families.

“I received Duke’s financial aid package before I was offered a scholarship,” she said. “Other colleges had a bit more generous financial aid policies.”

Li—who considered Harvard University, Yale University and the Rice/Baylor Medical Scholars Program before choosing Duke with the A.B. Duke Scholarship—noted that some students might choose more established Ivy League schools over Duke were it not for its merit scholarships.

Many students who are considered for merit scholarships often have been admitted to other comparable schools, Thompson wrote. The B.N. Scholarship encourages students from North Carolina, who might otherwise attend other institutions, to continue contributing to positive change in the state.

'More than just the money'

The advantages of merit aid programs extend beyond the sphere of finances, Malouf wrote.

“It's not all about the money at Duke,” she wrote. “It's about the programmatic resources and support.”

Both Barclay and Li noted that merit aid programs help build diverse and vibrant communities of scholarship. In addition to benefiting individual scholars, they also contribute to the University’s overall intellectual climate, Barclay said.

“Merit scholarships at Duke are a lot more than just the money,” he said. “They're a real community, and a large part of their strength are the relationships with students, faculty and mentors that come with them.”


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