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The Price of Duke

In yesterday’s editorial, we discussed President Price’s responses to questions on University issues such as sexual assault, campus housing reform and labor relations from our hour-long interview with him on Sunday. Today, we turn to our discussion on the increasingly prominent issue of funding Duke’s ambitions as a leading research university, which is inextricably tied with questions about the affordability of a Duke education. 

For the past decade, the full price of attending Duke has increased at a steady rate of roughly four percent per year. While the University has made an effort to compensate for tuition hikes by offering increasingly generous financial aid packages, these hikes have placed many middle income families under considerable financial strain. Moreover, questions remain on whether the consistent growth in the cost of education is sustainable or proportionate to the value students receive from their Duke education. Addressing the issue of rising tuition costs, President Price described the precarious financial balancing act the University currently faces related to cost and revenue considerations. 

On the cost side, President Price emphasized that increases in tuition are driven not only by a dramatic expansion in the services and programs that Duke and peer institutions provide to its students, but also by significant increases in the provision of need-based financial aid. Yet even if spending on services and programs remained constant, Duke also faces the challenge of increasing its provision of financial aid to ensure that families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can afford a Duke education. President Price pointed out that the increase in financial aid spending is supported primarily by unaided tuition dollars rather than the endowment. Ultimately, Price conceded that, for better or for worse, “the system we have does depend in many respects on increases in tuition that will typically exceed increases in costs of living.” When asked if this system would be sustainable over the long-run, Price replied that he did not know. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the University “will face some tough questions” in a near future where the sticker-price of a Duke education will most likely exceed $80,000. 

Like other elite universities, Duke navigates a challenging tradeoff between the desire to create a world-class education and the need to keep the cost of attendance feasible. President Price emphasized that relative to peer institutions, Duke’s operations are already highly cost-effective and efficient. However, rather than having to make the difficult choice of eliminating programs, President Price expressed his commitment to alleviating some of the financial constraints by focusing energy on the revenue-side of the financial equation. He stated his determination to become “Duke’s most successful president ever in raising funding for financial aid” and brought up the need for an ambitious fundraising strategy during his presidency. 

While we laud President Price’s commitment to improving the Duke experience, the Board also felt that it should be accompanied by a greater push towards more transparency concerning the Board of Trustees’ decision-making process. While Duke’s choices on spending and increasing tuition may seem well-justified from the current decision-makers’ point of view, the lack of clarity for what motivates these increases leaves many students and their families feeling frustrated and bewildered. Resolving this dissatisfaction through greater transparency would be a significant step towards aligning the University’s ambitious vision with the sentiments of the families whose tuition dollars help fund this vision

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