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The beginning of the end of an affordable Duke

Photos are Chronicle file photos
Photos are Chronicle file photos

Financial aid at Duke is under threat, and the regressive policies that administrators may institute in the coming weeks and months could trigger a crisis of affordability at Duke

The sudden defunding of our healthcare is a harbinger of further financial aid rollbacks that could unfold. I have worked extensively with our current policy, and here, using publicly available data, I make predictions regarding how that policy may change for the worse at precisely the moment when we need it the most. What becomes clear through this analysis is what could be at stake for thousands of students: summer aid, summer earnings, manageable work study and affordable healthcare. 

I estimate the current financial aid budget by running simulated aid packages using the online financial aid calculator and examining distributions of aided students that exist in the public record across dozens of documents from the past decade. (The graphs below provide further information about the derivation of these numbers.) By analyzing these data, we can gain insight into the devastating decisions administration may be contemplating right now. And while these numbers are an approximation, they can serve to form the basis of our understanding of the magnitude of the problem we face.

These numbers are not official Chronicle or University data and are solely my estimates.


The estimation of the deficit above creates a clear predicament for the administration. The resulting goal: reduce financial aid spending by $10-15 million within the next year, without harming bottom line reported statistics—like average grant aid or average loan burden of graduating students. If administration hopes to achieve this, the aid programs that logically will be shed are those “extras” not calculated in the bottom line: summer aid, summer earnings, work study and healthcare. 

To the administration, these forms of aid have become burdensome line items; to the students who receive them, they define their Duke experience.

The recent removal of funding for the Student Medical Insurance Plan for students with a calculated parent contribution greater than $0 means that approximately 1,200 current students may face an added annual burden of $3,535, though that cost may not affect all students equally. This decision has earned wide and rightful criticism. But what should cause even greater fear is the signal of financial desperation it sends. 

By not grandfathering current students in, this decision is estimated to free up between three and five million dollars to cover part of the deficit incurred by financial aid this year. This signals unequivocally that our financial aid budget is in danger. And by targeting a program as vital as healthcare, the administration signals that no form of aid is too precious to be protected. 

In the estimated annual budget, $8 million pays for students’ ninth semester or summer session attendance (assuming all eligible students take advantage of it). This funding is vital to level the playing field for students of low and middle socioeconomic status, especially those who are pre-medicine or in Pratt. Many of these students enter Duke with fewer credits from AP or IB classes and need this opportunity to finish their program, yet summer and ninth semester aid could become a target. By removing summer aid, Duke would be fundamentally de-prioritizing the academic success of its most vulnerable students. 

Similarly, funds for compensating students who chose unpaid summer experiences like DukeEngage or unpaid internships could be at risk. Without the $1.5 million I estimated is invested in summer earnings replacement, the several hundred students that rely on it every year may be forced to forego Duke’s most enriching opportunities. By stripping the availability of summer earning, the administration would be widening the inequality of access already present between hundreds of financial aid recipients and their wealthier peers. 

Along with cutting programs that support students over the summer, the administration could also contemplate expanding the earning requirements expected of students throughout the year. Current aid packages expect $2,200 worth of work study per year for most students on financial aid, yet already on the financial aid website, that number has risen to $3,000 beginning Fall 2019. Without a corresponding rise in wages, the 10 hours of work a week already expected of low and middle income students will need to rise to more than 13 hours a week. Further, there is evidence that as work study requirements increase, students will increase their loan borrowing and see their academic performance decline. This decision would save the University around $2.2 million by requiring extra hours of labor by poorer students, fundamentally denigrating their time and effort as compared to their richer classmates.

Each of these catastrophic policy decisions being sent out through letters, quietly posted on websites and whispered by administration has been made without any substantive discourse with the students that they will directly affect. 

Thousands of current and incoming students have been left in the dark, as the plug may be pulled on their healthcare, summers and manageable work studies. Based on my estimates, these cuts will have the desired outcome of saving the administration approximately $11.4 million, with the consequence of making thousands of students wonder if they can afford to be a part of the Duke community. 

No one person in the administration is the sole architect of this regression, but there are many single individuals who can stop it. Jack Bovender, chair of the Board of Trustees, President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth all have the power and the responsibility to prevent these devastating cuts and to double down on our commitment to financial aid instead. Specifically, Jack Bovender can encourage the Board to increase our endowment spending rate for financial aid from 5.75 percent to 6.5 percent to recoup much of the current deficit. Price can make financial aid the cornerstone of his capital campaign and raise $300 million like his predecessor. And Kornbluth can involve students directly in this conversation before proposing any more programmatic cuts that will fundamentally alter their lives. These solutions exist, and thousands of students and parents should not be losing sleep imagining what financial aid crisis will arrive in the mail next. 

Administrators have been muddling through a mess of back room budgets and grouping us into aggregated statistics, and in the process our lives have become lost among line items. 

Don't let them. 

Tell the administrators—who alone determine the fate of financial aid—who you are. Tell them what these programs have done for you. And remind them that what they choose to do affects more than just the numbers.  

Luke Farrell is a Trinity senior. His column By The Numbers usually runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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