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Affordability beyond financial aid

Four weeks ago, I wrote that too much of Duke’s annual budget is going towards housing and luxuries, and not enough towards financial aid. Since that time, I have held plenty of conversations with friends and classmates about the merits of giving in higher education. I’ve thought about the money that goes towards Duke’s relationship with Durham, about the portion of our annual budget that goes toward paying our staff, and about our administration’s fiscal priorities. But mostly, since that time, I have reflected on what affordability on this campus actually looks like in action.

Affordability does not stop with financial aid.

It does not stop with tuition dollars.

Throughout our four years on campus, we spend an extraordinary amount of money on everyday items: on that $9 Tandoor meal you got for lunch in West Union, the $3.75 you pay for laundry each week to wash and dry your clothes in your dorm and the $232 textbook you had to buy in order to pass Organic Chemistry.

Affordability affects all corners of Duke, but let’s start by deconstructing housing.

Through the three-year housing requirement, Duke forces most students to pay $24,018 over their first three years for a double. If you want a single, that number rises to $31,278. For comparison, RentCafe puts the average price of rent for a double over the course of three years at $19,998.

Academic materials on campus also add to the burden that students of low socioeconomic statuses face. Each year, the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Support estimates that the typical Trinity student expends $3,466 on books and supplies.

Yet, this number differs across majors, concentrations and even individual classes. My Public Policy 155 course certainly did not cost me nearly as much as my best friend’s Physics 151 course. The reason: my professor did not assign a textbook. Duke, however, does not take into account the varying levels of expenses from class to class. Many of us are left in the dark about our own financial obligations until after the drop-add window closes and many of the best courses this university has to offer have filled.

And socioeconomic accessibility does not stop at the edges of this campus. Each year, Duke students are told that we should attempt to bridge the divide between Duke and Durham in thoughtful and meaningful ways. But how do students of low socioeconomic background engage with Durham artists and activists when they can’t afford a Lyft? How do they experience the Durham food scene when they cannot afford a proper meal in the city?

During breaks, students of low socioeconomic status are often marooned on-campus over Fall, Thanksgiving and Spring breaks. When campus vendors close, the food points provided by the Financial Aid Office are effectively meaningless. This leaves students stranded, with their luxurious meal plans rendered useless. A similar problem arises between the last day of class and graduation, when campus vendors close but students are still in need of food. These basic issues are obstacles that run in the face of true inclusivity on this campus.

These examples speak to larger issues that seem to have no implemented, or proposed, solutions.

Four weeks ago, I wrote about financial aid. But lived experiences on this campus based on socioeconomic status stretch far beyond the doors of the financial aid office.

We live on a campus where the median family income stands at $186,700. Nearly four percent of our students hail from the top tenth of one percent of American families. More than half of our undergraduate body is a part of the top 10 percent of Americans by income. But, because of each of the extreme concentration of wealth all around us, we oftentimes forget the four percent of our undergraduate body who hail from the bottom 20 percent of income brackets. It is not a stretch to conclude that those in the bottom 50 percent of income brackets struggle to afford life at Duke. Too often, we forget these students.

All of these problems create two distinct Dukes; one with individuals who can afford the vast luxuries that Duke and the Durham community have to offer, and another, forced to work harder in a crowd of opulent peers.

We need to work to bridge this gap, to make quality of life on this campus independent of socioeconomic status—a conversation that goes beyond financial aid.

During my time on my campus, we will not fix all of these problems. But this is a long-term game. How do we want this campus to look in the future? 

I want to see a Duke in which every person, regardless of socioeconomic status, can take full part in our community. And each step that we can take to address affordability takes us one step closer to that Duke.

Steve Hassey is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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