Student advocacy was 'important factor' in Price's reversal of healthcare policy changes

Chronicle File Photo
Chronicle File Photo

Last month, President Vincent Price announced in a letter to the editor in The Chronicle that there would be no changes to University’s financial aid programs for current undergraduates.

His letter quieted some questions from students and families in the face of changes to student health insurance, as well as concerns about possible impending changes to summer program aid and work study. The health care policy changes had been communicated early in the semester through email, letters to families and the website for the Karsh Office of Financial Aid.

In the days after The Chronicle published the proposed cuts to student health insurance, students met with Duke administrators to voice their concerns.

"Student reaction to the proposed health insurance change was an important factor in the reversal of the policy," wrote Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, in an email to The Chronicle.

Senior Kristina Smith, Duke Student Government president, and senior Adam Bullock, a DSG senator, met with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education. The two seniors suggested that only future students should be affected by the new insurance policies, and that students should be included in future conversations about financial aid. 

Later, when the University Priorities Committee—a presidential advisory committee that deals with the University’s budget—convened to discuss the future of financial aid, Smith continued to advocate for those ideas.

“As the only student in that room and as a student who is on aid, I walked into that meeting attempting to advocate as best I could for the Duke experience because I think that everything financial aid gives us allows this to be an equitable university,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, representatives for People’s State of the University—a student activist group on campus—addressed the financial aid changes with administration groups.

Senior Sydney Roberts, one of the student organizers and co-chair of The Chronicle's independent editorial board, said the group was already hearing from students about how the new policy would affect their families’ ability to afford Duke. Students were dismayed by the way the University “half-announced” the changes, Roberts explained.

The group had planned a demonstration at which students would have discussed how the financial aid changes would affect them. They also encouraged students to voice their concerns to administrators. However, the group cancelled the event after Price wrote to The Chronicle and affirmed Duke’s commitment to supporting students financially. Roberts said the change is a win for the organization and the Duke community.

“Duke has historically been, and will continue to be, one of a small number of universities that admit students regardless of their ability to pay and subsequently meet every student’s full demonstrated need for their entire course of study, from orientation through graduation,” Price wrote in the letter.

In a unanimous resolution, DSG suggested provisions for future financial aid policies at Duke: to increase transparency, to limit the effects of policy changes on current students and to provide better communication with students and families.

“I’m glad that he took it upon himself personally as the head of our institution to say not only that they acted too quickly and that there was miscommunication, but also that there are pressures on the financial aid budget that the University has to look at critically,” Smith said.

Schoenfeld said that Duke is one of about 40 universities—out of more than 4,500 in the United States—accepting students regardless of their ability to pay and then meets all demonstrated need.

The University invests more than $180 million annually in assistance for students through need-based aid, programs for first-generation students, honors programs and athletics scholarships.

“Since the majority of this investment comes from the university’s operating budget, as opposed to the endowment, we will always have to make tradeoffs to ensure that all goals and aspirations as a university—excellence in teaching, research, and service to society—can be reached,” Schoenfeld wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Duke is currently working to establish endowments that will provide a permanent funding source for financial aid, which continues to be the University’s highest priority for fundraising. 


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