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Pay for my healthcare, not my gap year

On the heels of various announcements regarding Duke’s 2018 fiscal year victories—including a record high endowment and having the second highest fundraising year on record—news broke this week of a new grant program to launch for the class of 2023.

This donated fund will provide $5,000 to $15,000 in funding each to 15 to 20 incoming first-years for approved gap year projects. Typically thought of in the context of pre-professional students who take a year off before entering graduate school, the trend of high school students waiting before starting their collegiate studies is becoming more popular in America. The Duke Gap Year Program was created in response to this growing phenomenon of typically well-resourced and upper class high school students deferring their college entrance for twelve months.

According to a recent survey from the U.S.-based Gap Year Association, an overwhelming majority—85 percent—of students who take a gap year say they are motivated by desire to "travel and experience other cultures." These trips usually include a service element, which fall into the tropes of a savior-complexed Westerner painting a school house or teaching impoverished children abroad—international romps which promote harmful cultural stereotypes devoid of socio-historical context and often do nothing beyond serving as Instagram fodder.

While there is much to be said in general about the typically offensive and counterproductive service work-based projects of gap years, the decision to finance a grant program to support such endeavors reveals a number of noteworthy things about the flaws riddling donations in general.

While it’s unclear whether or not this was a designated donation—a demarcation that allows donors to earmark their contributions for specific goals or departments—this new program still serves as a springboard for larger questions around priorities. 

The notion that the donors are trying to make gap years potentially more accessible is certainly admirable in theory. However, what remains troubling is why these resources would be diverted away from other critical financial aid programs to support a shiny new program that doesn’t even assist current students who are struggling with essentials. Contributions like these, regardless of the good intent, ultimately eschew pragmatism in service of a clear university hierarchy of priorities in favor of flashy self-aggrandizement.

This program strikes a particularly impractical tone after a month marred with the potential revocation of health insurance. That battle—which eventually ended in a personal apology from President Price and a pledge from the school to reimburse any costs to families adversely affected by the premature announcement—reflects how Duke is growing increasingly out of touch and insensitive to the needs of low income students. This institutional bungle also highlights the pressing need for monetary bolstering of programs that make life possible for students here that aren’t from the top one percent. Channeling money for not-even-Duke-students-yet looking to sop up some additional funding for their “voluntourism” gap year projects ignores where there are real, pressing needs are on campus.

This isn’t to say that it’s necessarily expected of mega-rich donors to have a keen sense of which need-based programs could actually use their money or the specific trials and tribulations of low-income students. However, the notion that we must throw up our hands and say there’s nothing to be done about the problem of potentially diverting funding from low-priority programs to the need-based aid office—that is clearly so strapped for cash that Duke considered canning students’ healthcare—is deeply flawed and defeatist.

Duke’s development office is staffed with officers whose job is to present donors with the financial needs of the university and lobby donors to give accordingly. Funding of these low-priority programs is either a result of lobbying scripts that don’t stress crucial services enough, or of an ambivalence toward the most in-need students on the part of wealthy donors entranced by being attached to buildings or lofty grants. The barrier is obvious: pooling your money into a general financial aid pot isn’t sexy, glitzy or country club gossip-worthy. It isn’t an eye-catching plaque or a entire program named after you, but the contributions made to financial aid are profoundly meaningful for students who could not have reached these hallowed halls without it.

What is immediately clear from the University’s recent announcements regarding potential cuts to essential services (even in light of a record-breaking financial year) is that their priorities are skewed in the direction of attempting to become more competitive with peer schools and attract top high school talent. Furthermore, the inability of donors to see past the draw of founding self-applauding, window dressing programs instead of investment in the food-insecure, low-income, top tier students already here is a reminder that this university still functions first and foremost for the rich. Rome is burning, yet Duke and the philanthropic class donating their way out of tax obligations are fiddling for the amusement of high schoolers who prowl on College Confidential.


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