The independent news organization of Duke University

In search of economic diversity

A recently published New York Times infographic that documented the wealth of college students’ households sent a wave of electricity through Duke’s campus, sparking discussions about income diversity at the university and Duke’s image as an elite institution of higher education. Drawing on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records collected at the Equality of Opportunity Project, the infographic painted an image of Duke as a center of education in large part dedicated to the children of the 1 percent rather than as a great equalizer.

Judging from social media, there seemed to be two broad classes of response to the Times report. On the one hand, some students found the statistics to be unsurprising. Duke has long been considered a bastion of elitism (a tar brush that even stretches the men’s basketball team). Students from lesser means, and to some degree those from middle class backgrounds, have accepted that the Duke experience—eating at a student union that costed around 90 million dollars and going to class with children of CEOs—is privileged and sometimes alienating. On the other hand, some students were surprised to see the distribution figures in their full numerical starkness.

To make better sense of the report, it is useful to determine which Duke-relevant statistics merit the most attention. The most striking figure was the distribution of extreme household incomes. Only 3.9 percent of Duke students came from the bottom quintile of households while 69 percent came from the top quintile. That disparity calls into question the success of Duke’s efforts to market itself to talented students from lower income levels and gives credence to the idea that Duke is an elite, income-exclusive school. Higher education has long been thought to be a means for talented children of the underclass to take their rightful positions among the social strata. This mythos has a problem if so few of those children have access to Duke and other similar schools.

Duke has made some laudable strides in making itself affordable to low-income students (e.g., instituting the Washington Duke Scholars program for first-generation college students). But even so, it is unclear whether its smattering of new programs have increased low-income students’ access to the university: the percentage of students coming from the bottom 60 percent of households has scarcely changed in the last 35 years.

In addition to pointing out some serious issues at Duke, the Times infographic also contained some flashy statistics that can be largely ignored. The statistics on mobility—a miniscule 1.6 percent of Duke students jumped from a bottom-quintile upbringing to a top-quintile life—are more a reflection of the fact that Duke has so few low and middle-income students. If 69 percent of the population starts at the top quintile, not many students are mathematically left to be able to rise two or more quintiles. The median income at age 34 statistic, which putatively serves an indicator of future success, is as much about the sectors that Duke students choose to enter as much as it is about the quality of a Duke education.

What we should take away from this report is that Duke has a decision to make. Although Duke students do well, a narrow segment of the US population has access to the university. Whatever Duke has done to make itself more affordable and accessible to low-income students has not worked. If it is true that the university’s relatively small endowment limits its potential to implement free-tuition schemes, it ought to reduce the back-patting rhetoric about providing 50 percent of students with financial aid and be more forthright about its shortcomings. Otherwise, it ought to put more effort where its mouth is.


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