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Despite low Duke student debt, students have mixed feelings for financial aid

Duke was recently ranked third on the list of universities with the lowest student debt by US News & World Report, but several students expressed varying opinions with their financial aid experiences.

Duke students graduate with a median average debt of $9,200, a smaller figure than the average nationwide debt of $30,000 for class of 2017 graduates. The majority of borrowers at all colleges owe less than $50,000, and the financial aid office aims to cap loans for Duke students at around $20,000. Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, noted in an email to The Chronicle that it is important to ensure that students are able to fund their education in a sustainable way.

“Our Karsh Office of [Undergraduate] Financial Support is heavily focused on addressing students’ needs, both in the development of financial aid packages [and] also when ad hoc challenges emerge,” Bennett wrote.

The Office of Undergraduate Education is working with DukeLIFE, an organization for low-income and first-generation students, to ensure that the University is meeting student needs and helping them identify avenues for support. The collaboration is led by Dean of Academic Affairs John Blackshear, who is also assistant vice provost of undergraduate education. 

The office also aims to provide accessible programming for all students regardless of financial need, according to Sloan Talbot, Trinity ‘19, Nowicki fellow for student engagement.

“My wife and I worked hard and sacrificed greatly to pay down the loan debt she accumulated as a Duke undergraduate,” Bennett wrote. “Duke’s financial support is considerably better today, but we administrators are focused on this issue because we appreciate the need to do more.”

As a result of the debt crisis, more universities are developing no-loan or reduced-loan aid policies to ease the financial burden on students. Duke has implemented the latter—students receive limited loans from the University, and all other need is presumed to be covered by other forms of aid.

“All students can apply for need-based aid, which provides assistance to students by calculating a family contribution and then meeting any remaining cost with a maximum loan of $5,000 per student,” wrote Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of the office of undergraduate financial aid.

Duke’s financial aid policies have been criticized in the past, particularly for a decision—which was reversed after backlash—that would have stopped covering health insurance for students who do not have a parent contribution of $0. This could have placed students unable to cover the costs of insurance in a precarious situation.

Numerous students have benefited from financial aid at Duke—junior Omolola Sanusi, a writer for Recess, is one of them. Shortly after being accepted to Duke, she contacted the financial aid office to request assistance in paying for her education. 

“They’re really responsive,” Sanusi said. “I feel very comfortable studying abroad or trying to find an internship because, even if it’s not directly from the financial aid office, there are methods to receive funding.”

Senior Hadeel Abdelhy is in her ninth semester at Duke after taking medical leave in Spring 2019, and she is receiving financial aid for her final two semesters. However, she noted that she wasn’t even aware funding was available after the eighth semester.

“It’s not really made clear that this funding is available, and it would have been nice to know that,” she said. 

Although Abdelhy had a positive experience receiving aid for the academic year, she said that receiving financial support during her leave from the University was more complicated.

She attempted to request funds for summer 2019, but was told that she could not receive funding because she was on leave. Leave of absence policies state that students on medical leave “are not eligible for the benefits afforded to active Duke undergraduates” but do not explicitly mention financial support. 

Rabil explained in an email to The Chronicle that the financial aid office cannot provide aid to students who are not enrolled, but that the Career Center could help students with employment opportunities regardless of enrollment status. After further explaining her financial situation, Abdelhy was able to receive assistance for the summer. 

Abdelhy added that financial aid provides funds to students to cover medical and therapeutic appointments, but it usually comes as a reimbursement after the student has already paid the bill. She spoke of incidents where students could not cover rideshare fees to get to appointments or pay for treatment in the first place.

“I know people who were hospitalized because they just couldn’t afford the copays or transportation,” she said.

This would not be the first time Duke reimbursed students for incurred expenses: first-year Alexia Bryan wrote in an email to The Chronicle that she was reimbursed by financial aid three weeks after paying the $3,535 insurance fee out-of-pocket.

“As long as you’re on top of financial aid, they will help,” Bryan wrote.

It’s not out of the ordinary for students to assume responsibility for their expenses—in fact, it’s expected of them.

All Duke first-years have a minimum $2,600 student contribution to cover expenses they may incur during the academic year. This contribution is not directly paid to the bursar, so students on financial aid usually do not receive grants to cover it. However, if students take summer courses or partake in other approved programs, part or all of this contribution is meant to be waived and reimbursed to the student. 

“If a student is participating in Duke Engage, Bass Connections and summer term enrollments for a maximum of 2 summer terms [they] can receive partial or full waivers of the summer earnings requirement,” Rabil wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “If students are in other programs, the summer earning expectation (otherwise known as the student contribution) is not waived.”

However, junior Resilience Williamson did not receive this reimbursement after participating in both 2019 summer sessions, which was oneof multiple challenges with financial aid. They wrote a statement to a Women’s Center employee in early September, and this statement was shared with The Chronicle.

Initially, Williamson’s summer grant for housing and food was delayed. Due to the delay in reimbursement, Williamson had to work multiple jobs and find other ways to make ends meet during the summer term. They were provided with meal cards to eat at the Brodhead Center but still dealt with food insecurity and worried about being potentially evicted from their sublet.

“I had to explain [to financial aid] countless times how hungry I was and how I was living off $3 to $5 a day for food and gas,” Williamson wrote.

The ordeal took a significant toll on Williamson’s mental and physical health, to the point where they reached out to Counseling and Psychological Services, DukeReach and the Women’s Center to alleviate their financial anxiety. They stated that DukeReach advised them to contact Rabil, but they had been previously advised to stop contacting Rabil and to contact their financial aid counselor instead.

Until Williamson met with a campus personal finance adviser to determine how to budget their money if they didn’t get their refund, financial aid did not release the money to them. 

Williamson also found discrepancies between their financial need and estimated aid for the Fall semester. They alerted their financial aid counselor, only to be told that the extra charges were from their summer bill, which they had already paid off, and that they were at a financial aid cap for the semester. Their summer funding replacement grant was missing from their package as well. 

“I am a Rubenstein Scholar, which [means] I qualify for full grant aid with no loans, but that wasn’t being reflected in my package,” they wrote in their statement.

Williamson eventually received an aid package reflecting the true costs of the semester, but referred to the ordeal as “gruesome”.

Rabil wrote in an email concerning financial aid that every situation is different and students are encouraged to speak to their assigned counselors.

“Even if you don’t have any aid, you have a financial aid counselor,” she wrote, “so we would encourage anyone needing assistance for any reason to reach out.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Williamson's story.

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