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Questioning the merits of merit

As current students begin rallying for LDOC and staking out the perfect study spot in Perkins for finals season, starry-eyed Blue Devil Days attendees are flooding campus once again. While some prospective students are primarily evaluating the university based on the rigor of classes, the quality of the food in the Brodhead Center and general campus atmosphere, others are facing a far more daunting, deterministic metric: financial aid.

For p-frosh seeking need-based financial aid, the festivities of Blue Devil Days are partially clouded by anxious visits to the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support. Middle and working class prospective students are faced with the stressful task of weighing the promised benefits of Duke's prestige against the astronomical cost of attending such an expensive university.

Many are likely wondering how they could possibly afford four years of attendance, how many summer jobs and work-study positions they would have to take on, and if it’s fair to ask their family to make sacrifices for a nearly $75,000 price tag. A weekend that should be about celebrating their years of academic excellence leaves many students feeling lost and worried if all their efforts could be rendered null and void by annually rising tuition. 

However, in contrast, other prospective first-years who have been awarded merit scholarships or athletic scholarships are able to freely enjoy the weekend’s festivities with less anxiety. Duke is unique amongst its peers as the only institution in the top ten highest-ranking universities that offers full-ride merit scholarships. Duke gives out a number of prominent full-ride merit scholarships, including the Benjamin N. Duke (B.N.) Scholars, Angier B. Duke (A.B.) Scholars, David M. Rubenstein Scholars, Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholars, Robertson Scholars, Trinity Scholars, University Scholars, North Carolina Math Scholars and Karsh International Scholars. These scholarships give full monetary assistance to the recipient, typically in addition to programmatic resources and professional assistance. They also give Duke a competitive edge when convincing exceptional students with many attractive options on their table to choose Duke over the other comparable, more established Ivy League institutions.

However, a concerning facet of some of these well-known programs—like the A.B. Scholarship, B.N. Scholarship and the Robertson scholarship—is that they don't necessarily account for need. While merit can be measured by a number of qualities or actions, the measurement of individual merit is complicated by overarching unequal socioeconomic structures and disparate resource access. 

Depending on immutable factors like generational wealth, school district funding and family obligations, students end up having widely differing levels of access to the tools and resources which allow them to demonstrate or hone their abilities. As a result, a standardized benchmark for delineating academic or personal excellence doesn't accurately gauge applicants, erasing the differences in hurdles or personal challenges.

As it stands, merit-based awards can in part be the result of having funds to pay for college admissions advisors who review your essays to make sure they are perfectly crafted, or having a pricey tutor who will prepare you for ACT, SAT and AP tests. Additionally, all those impressive extra-curriculars, sports programs and eye-opening travel experiences that characterize the applications of merit award winners certainly don't come cheap.

Students who cannot afford such luxuries and still successfully fought to get their acceptance letters are left questioning if their efforts were worth the struggle. How can students who attended schools without well-funded debate programs, who didn't have parents capable of bankrolling a nonprofit venture or who had to work to afford standardized test fees possibly compete if there's no variable for difference in resources?

While some students are unable to financially guarantee their academic future, their financially secure and talented peers can enjoy the possibility of receiving supplemental—but not as critical—financial support with their merit scholarships. The parameters for merit here are subjective, contextless and uncritical, calling the entire concept of meritocracy into question.

Furthermore, conversations around socioeconomic inequity would be myopic if discussions about racial inequity were absent. The selection process of the merit scholars perpetuates academia’s chronic underrepresentation of students of color, particularly Black students.

This is painfully prominent in the A.B. Scholars program, where there is clearly a dearth of Black/African-American students in the Classes of 2019-2022. The program describes the scholars as students who “are, by any measure, among the best in the nation—and the world.” The absence of Black students in the program potentially upholds a narrative in which Black students could not be among the best nationally and internationally and can only exist as exceptional and meritable through the channel of a racially-specific program, like the Reginaldo Howard Scholars Program. Broadly speaking, while the distribution of scholarships certainly should not be modeled after a quota system at the risk of tokenizing marginalized students, the screening process for merit scholarships should try to target root causes of socioeconomic inequity by partially making need-based considerations.

Other comparable elite universities—which Duke routinely tries to emulate in nearly every other way—strictly give out need-based financial aid. One could argue that the creation of merit scholarships by specific donors makes them a permanent part of Duke financial aid. However, the university thinks they are properly treating the chronic issue of socioeconomic inequity in higher education through purely merit-based scholarships, then it is a counterproductive treatment. Merit scholarships decoupled from need-based considerations exacerbate the existing condition. Consequently, Duke ought to make all scholarships have a need-based component. Beyond a short-term restructuring, a more genuine and holistic long-term vision would include divesting from the idea that selective financial empowerment is empowerment for all, making material and programmatic infrastructure accessible outside of the merit scholarship framework, and denouncing meritocracy as a myth.

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. Editor's note: Leland Ben recused himself from this editorial.


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