The independent news organization of Duke University

Investigating merit

On Sunday afternoon, Duke senior Gabrielle Stewart was announced as one of 32 Rhodes Scholars in the United States, making her the 46th student to accrue such an honor in the university’s history. Stewart is also a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar, which is one of three fully merit based scholarships offered by our institution. Both programs theoretically function, first and foremost, to reward talent and noteworthy promise in the recipient, as opposed to need-based awards that are primarily concerned with demonstrable financial constraints. While students receiving merit-based aid at Duke are no doubt extremely accomplished individuals, a deeper analysis of what circumstances facilitate those types of extraordinary achievement is needed. 

Duke is exceptional among its peers in the realm of financial aid for being the only university from the US News top ten schools to offer full-ride merit based aid. These scholarships provide immense amounts of support to scholars from the first day they set foot on campus. The A.B. Duke Scholarships provide students with “support to help them find faculty mentors whose interests match their own and develop research, arts, and service projects” and the B.N. Duke Scholarships entice applicants by offering “dedicated faculty and staff [to] help the scholars reach new academic heights and tackle real world problems with innovative, interdisciplinary, compassionate, and sustainable approaches.” These resources assist students in developing their passions into projects and provide guidance in becoming exceptional scholars. However, the programs are not truly available to everyone at Duke because of the unspoken impact that social and economic differences have on traditional metrics of success. To pretend that “merit” exists in college admissions is to ignore the resources which allow students to get to the point of being considered for merit aid. Studies have shown that SAT scores correlate strongly with family income level and that the best public schools in the country are almost exclusively located in the wealthiest areas. To make matters worse, many low income students need a job in high school to make ends meet—leaving less time for immersing themselves in extracurriculars they’re passionate for. Additionally, Black and Latinx students are systematically disenfranchised further through school tracking and the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline. These are simply a few of the barriers students from non-privileged backgrounds face throughout their schooling, yet those debilitating hurdles are frequently erased when applicants are evaluated based on their high school accomplishments.

The merit scholarships that Duke offers are undoubtedly successful in creating amazing scholars, but it is dishonest to frame these opportunities as divorced from larger systems of inequality. That being said, it is worth acknowledging that Duke has made considerable progress by offering robust financial and academic assistance to less privileged students through the Rubenstein Scholarship. Despite its benefits, this aid package also shows that Duke is entirely cognizant of the advantages that additional support can provide for first generation college students, yet does not take the initiative to broaden the availability of that assistance. In order to live up to claims that Duke values bright students from all walks of life, the campus needs to be a place welcoming to all, not just those with bountiful opportunities they had early on in life. The condition and robustness of our financial aid offers should not be subject to what peer institutions are providing, rather, the financial subsidies should be plentiful and impressive because Duke has the money and the resources to help all marginalized students thrive and call this university home.


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