Do you ever wonder if members of the Board of Trustees read the Chronicle?
The Chronicle is the one place on campus, save maybe K-Ville, where all aspects of Duke unite and reflect the most honest versions of themselves. The front pages are plastered with the latest scandal, the sports section is flooded with love letters to everyone’s favorite valentine, Zion Williamson, and the opinion section is filled with columns that reflect the honest views of students. Columns that, largely, question whether or not the people in charge of our education are connected to the students most impacted by their decisions.
Based on the latest update to come from the Board of Directors, I would argue they aren’t as connected to the concerns of the most marginalized as we might assume. As The Chronicle reported, tuition is set to increase by 3.9 percent over the next few years. While 49 percent of Duke students are able to afford tuition without any aid, I believe Duke is failing students who need financial aid to make Duke work for them.
Understandably, the University needs money to function properly. Duke is a unique place that provides so many students with an educational journey of a lifetime. From programs like DukeEngage and DukeImmerse, to assistive services like the Career Center and the Academic Advising Center, right down to, arguable, the best dining in the nation, Duke has a lot to offer its students.
Getting into Duke and becoming a student filled so many of us with pride because we understood that what is available here is unmatched by any other university. My worry is that, as time passes and tuition increases, fewer students would see Duke as the door-opening, world-view-expanding place that we all know and love. I am worried that instead, Duke will become a university whose gates are closed to students who cannot pay high tuition but would otherwise benefit from everything this school has to offer.
One of the most defining moments of my time here at Duke came almost a year ago. I was talking to a p-frosh about all he’d come to love about Duke during Blue Devil Days. One of the last things he told me, however, was that he wouldn’t be able to come to the schools that he grew to love because it was too expensive and Duke’s loan-based financial aid package wouldn’t work for his family. I pointed him in every direction I knew to try to scrape a few extra dollars out of Daddy Duke, but to no avail. He didn’t end up coming to Duke.
My conversations with this p-frosh reflect the sticker shock that accompanies a Duke acceptance letter. For many, this initial price shuts down the possibility of Duke from the get-go. Students who manage to stretch their dollars and enroll without the assurance that comes with growing up in financial security face an altogether different set of challenges.
Changing eating habits, taking on multiple jobs while balancing a rigorous course load, and opting out of Duke’s highly-visible social scene are basic examples of all the ways students on this campus try to balance lower socioeconomic status at a school that never stops building markers of wealth.
The conversation around financial accessibility has played out in the pages of the Chronicle this semester. Starting off as commentary on how certain students find social life at Duke to be inaccessible and ending up as a plea for Duke to do more to support students who fall outside of Duke’s economically well-situated class, the conversation about accessibility has taken center stage this semester. Senior Tyler Goldberger put it best when he wrote, “the juxtaposition between Duke’s commitment to parading its expansive wealth in front of the world and my financial background” leads to feelings of isolation and solitude.
It’s important to note that low-SES students are not lazy or passive on this campus. In many situations, students are taking it upon themselves to make Duke more accessible. DSG has been extremely effective at increasing transparency for course costs as to not blindside students while also increasing the number of food points given to first-years so that students are able to afford three meals a day. This speaks to the care and attention Duke students pay to the opportunities given to their peers. Campus leaders identify issues and work tirelessly to solve them.
However, the burden to make Duke more affordable across income levels cannot only be placed on students. After all, if we are asking low-income students to buy into an education—one that still relies on loans, while peer institutions do not—more than 1.6 percent of them should see an increase in wealth as a result of their Duke degree.
As senior Ethan Ahuna asks, “Why do we pay so much money to take those classes here?” As Ethan mentions in his own column, learning at Duke is a unique opportunity. We have access to some of the best professors, utilities and peers the country has to offer. Outside of the classroom, Duke’s extracurricular and entertainment activities are par none.
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At the beginning of this year’s fall semester, I urged Duke to do a better job of addressing hate speech on this campus. Thankfully, between now and then, the University has put forth logical and tangible initiatives to make Duke safer and more welcoming to students with marginalized identities. I want to urge Duke, now, to do a better job of addressing the reality for so many students and so many Americans: the price tag of a Duke education is too high for those would stand to benefit the most from a high-quality education.
I cannot imagine what lies within the pages of Duke’s financial books. Nor can I assume that if I were a member of the Board and had access to the long-term knowledge that they do that I would have voted differently. I understand that the University may face pressures that necessitate a tuition increase. All I ask is that the Board reevaluate President Price’s commitment to financial aid. That the University has invested in scholarship programs and has made increases in other categories of financial aid investment shows that the Board understands, generally, the economic burden that most students face.
However, we must go beyond that. The Board must listen to students who have a hard time making Duke work financially. As students, we must continue to work to make every part of this campus as accessible as possible. We must continue to push for change that makes Duke open to all.
Ryan Williams is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.