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A $73,513 education

Last week the Board of Trustees approved a 3.9 percent increase in the cost of undergraduate tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year, which will now be $55,380. The total “official” cost of attendance including tuition, room, board and fees will now be $73,519, up from $70,873. While the 3.7 percent increase was the lowest rate of total cost increase in about 20 years—as reflected President Vincent Price’s statement that the adjustment reflected “concerns about balancing the costs of providing our educational experience”—student responses, as expected, have been less than favorable. As always, dissatisfied upper middle class Duke students went onto social media to voice their concerns about the 3.9 percent tuition hike. 

Over the past few years, the Editorial Board has interviewed former President Richard Brodhead and President Price on a spectrum of campus issues, including financial aid. Brodhead noted that the real cost of attending Duke has actually declined for students on financial aid over the past few decades, which has been partially subsidized by such annual increases. Price’s response echoed Brodhead's explanation, citing a larger issue of competing with peer schools to expand services and programs, in addition to providing need-based aid. Price also mentioned that the increase in financial aid spending depends mainly on unaided tuition dollars rather than the endowment, though he acknowledged uncertainty over the sustainability of the current tuition model in place. 

The fact that current and past administrators are unsure of Duke’s ability to manage an increase in both financial aid and tuition should merit concern. Spending on higher education has remained well below historical levels despite recent increases in spending, as state funding for public two and four-year colleges in 2017 of $9 billion fell below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. Earlier this month, the White House released its 2019 fiscal year budget request for an a 10.5 percent budget cut, which creates a loss of over $7 billion from education spending across PreK-12 and higher education. Even considering the amended budget requests, in which many of the higher education-specific reductions would be restored, questions about the viability of Pell grants remain. Though Duke functions as a private university, and is largely unaffected by state spending cuts, alterations to government-subsidized aid have ramifications for much of the student body.

The increase in tuition merits concern in part because students are sometimes unaware of where the money is being spent. In a 2014 NPR article, reporters discussed a claim by Jim Roberts, former executive vice-provost for finance and administration, that “we're investing on average about $90,000 in the education of each student.” Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, was also cited in article, stating that most answers to Duke’s spending per student could be searched online. Given that this supposed investment for each student now is likely nearer to $100,000, perhaps Duke should make these seemingly arbitrary figures more transparent in the hopes of alleviating worries for Duke’s upper middle class students. 

Duke University maintains a relatively “small” endowment of $8.5 billion, which is dwarfed by those of Stanford and Harvard, which stand at $24.8 and $39.2, respectively. Despite recent drives to expand and drive development, Duke still draws a shorter purse from which to manage rising costs. That being said, Rice University, with an endowment of $6.2 billion offers U.S. undergraduates with family incomes under $130,000 tuition-free scholarships. Moreover, Vanderbilt, with an endowment only about half that of Duke, provides loan-free aid to undergraduates. Though Rice is currently managing a $125 million fundraising campaign to fund its ambitious efforts at improving affordability, it seems somewhat questionable that Duke has yet to announce its own drastic expansion of financial aid in the near future despite possessing an endowment greater than our Southern peers. 

The Board of Trustees’ decision will impact sectors of the student body differently depending on socioeconomic class. For Duke’s upper middle class students—possessing annual household incomes of around $150,000-$250,000, likely making them ineligible for aid—this increase will most likely mean more belt tightening as their families struggle with the $73,519 price tag. However, increases in tuition at the expense of certain students, in this case the Duke “middle class,” need not be a zero-sum game; improving aid for some students does not have to lead to a reduction of that of other students. We also urge students to stay committed to collective action, as Price noted that the lower increase in tuition compared to previous years was partially the result of student concerns. The annual increases in tuition are unlikely to end in the foreseeable future; as an institution, nonetheless, we should still be concerned with mitigating and adapting to these increases as we approach an age where Duke may cost approximately $80,000 for the un-aided. 

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 


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