Duke received more than 41,000 applications this year, Dean Guttentag tells Arts and Sciences Council

The profile of incoming students has changed in recent years, said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, at the Thursday meeting of the Arts and Sciences Council. 

Guttentag commented on the University’s ability to select students based on far more than their academic successes, explaining that Duke’s students are chosen for the aspects that set them apart from all other students in high academic standing.

“At this point the pool is so large and so robust that a minimum of 75 percent of students we admit score in the 99th percentile,” Guttentag said. 

Duke received a total of 41,500 undergraduate applications this year, and Guttentag predicts an approximate 6 percent acceptance rate for regular decision applicants, coming on the heels of an 18 percent acceptance rate for early decision applicants in December 2018. 

This number of applications is approximately 4,000 more than last year, when 37,302 students applied for admission.

A successful student is one that not only has outstanding academic credentials, but is also interesting, intellectual and invested in making an impact, Guttentag said. 

“We have the luxury of choosing the interesting students from among the smart ones,” Guttentag said.

He added students are increasingly zeroing in on their specific academic interests, identifying faculty, programs, certificate programs and courses that are relevant to their interests. This new trend has also created an additional avenue for selecting students. 

What brings top students to Duke is the sense of community and support that students find in the campus culture that sets Duke apart from comparable institutions, Guttentag said. 

“[Duke] students are ambitious, but much more supportive of each other and much less competitive toward each other than we find at our peer institutions,” the dean said.

He also noted that students are drawn in by the space Duke creates to study multiple areas at once and balance different interests.

“Students applying often had one [interest] that was practical and one that was personal, and one appeal of Duke was that they could do both—they could pursue the humanities and the arts and also the interests that their parents or society or culture had said to them, ‘this is the pathway to financial success,'” Guttentag said.

Faculty have a unique position to communicate their vision for how Duke and professors will shape and change the lives of students, he added. 

“There is an insight [faculty] have into the path [students] can take, because [they’ve] seen it happen,” Guttentag said. “Students want to envision the practical impact of what they’re learning.” 

Comparing pulling in top applicants to the athletic recruitment process, Guttentag also noted that faculty could learn from the close relationships that coaches form with prospective athletes. Some parents may also favor Duke to other institutions because they feel like their child has an adult and authority on campus looking out for them. 

In terms of distributing financial aid, Guttentag said that the group needing most attention is the cohort of families falling between an annual income of $150,000 and $250,000. 

“Those families generally are not eligible for very much financial aid. They have resources, yet to pay over $70,000 a year is a stretch for them,” he said. 

The Arts and Sciences Council also heard from leading faculty on changes in their departments.

Scott Huettel, professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, explained that in recent years the department has invested more time, attention and resources in foundational courses such as Introduction to Psychology. 

He noted that that department has paid increasing attention to the science and practice of teaching. Going forward, the department is emphasizing discovery, undergraduate research and building co-curricular connections.

“One really great way to get students out of the pre-professional mindset is to get them involved in discovery during undergrad,” Huettel said. 

Discussing developments in the classical studies department, William Johnson, professor of classical studies, pointed out that strategic focus on first- and second-year students has yielded new courses and conceptualized concentrations. 

In Latin, a class was introduced with the specific purpose of helping students acclimate to college-level Latin language coursework. Johnson added that courses based on modern, relevant issues will hopefully draw a new population of students who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in exploring the ancient past.

“The defining feature is that someone with no interest in antiquity can see words like democracy or slavery and figure out that maybe the history is material to what is going on in the modern day,” Johnson said. 

Reeve Huston, associate professor of history, shared that like the department of classical studies, the history department has dedicated attention to stimulate interest in its areas of study. As history fell from being the fifth- to the ninth-largest major in recent years, the faculty have sought solutions. One of these solutions has been offering signature courses such as American Dreams, American Realities that appeal to non-history majors by focusing on popular topics and themes.

Huston also noted that the history major features more ambiguity than others, as it requires students to take certain types of courses rather than specific courses themselves.

“We tend to see the courses as interchangeable parts,” he said.

To mitigate the problem, the faculty have been working on a clearer path through the major, introducing features such as a required gateway seminar in the spring semester of sophomore year and a research experience requirement. Although the department previously only planned its courses semester by semester, Huston noted that they are now using a three-year scope, enabling students to plan their semesters with more certainty.

Nayoung Aimee Kwon, associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, commented on the recent incident in the graduate school department of biostatistics and bioinformatics, in which a graduate program director emailed students chastising them for speaking in Chinese. Kim emphasized that this was not an isolated event, but instead one in a string of offenses indicating that “the status quo at Duke isn’t working.”

“Students seem like they’re going from crisis to crisis, working and going above and beyond to get issues into visibility and recognition,” Kwon said. “Students are at a boiling point and are asking us to take action as faculty and leadership of the community.”

Correction: This article was updated Friday morning to correct an misidentified attribution. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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