The number of Black undergraduates at Duke has risen over the years, yet even today Black students are less likely than their white peers to choose to attend after being accepted.
At Duke's Living While Black symposium in June, Provost Sally Kornbluth said that 39% of Black students admitted to the Class of 2024 matriculated to the University, compared to 68% of white students admitted. This statistic points to a need to create a more welcoming environment for Black students, she said.
“We need to have an experience so that when Black students come to visit Duke and when they think about matriculating at Duke, it’s a place they want to be,” Kornbluth said.
Asked about factors that impacted matriculation for the past three admissions cycles, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag wrote in a Sept. 21 email that “there were myriad factors that affect student yield, individually and in the aggregate.”
“We have a fairly well developed sense of what they are, and are studying where there are opportunities to make changes in our practices,” Guttentag wrote. “But unfortunately there’s no specific data on the various factors and how they interact that I’m able to share with you right now.”
The number of Black applicants and matriculants at Duke has increased slowly over the years since the University admitted its first Black undergraduates in 1963—making it one of the last major universities to desegregate. In 1979, Trinity College had 275 Black students, according to a 1980 report, which was roughly 5% of the undergraduate population.
In the past, the number of Black students at the University was “comparable” with peer institutions in the Northeast and “considerably higher than Vanderbilt or Emory, schools whose past experience is most similar to Duke’s,” former Chancellor A. Kenneth Pye wrote in the report. According to The Daily Princetonian, 107 Black students matriculated to Princeton in 1981, and 90 matriculated in 1982, which gave rise to an approximately 42% yield rate.
Pye also wrote that Duke’s admission rates for Black students compared favorably to other schools. A 1980 Chronicle article stated that 182 out of 400 Black applicants, or 45.5%, were admitted during the 1979-1980 cycle, while The Daily Princetonian reported that 220 Black students had been admitted out of an unspecified number of applicants during the same year.
The same Chronicle article mentioned a decline in the number of Black applicants from the previous year, when 244 out of 460 Black applicants—53%—were admitted during the 1978-1979 admissions cycle. Then-Director of Undergraduate Admissions Edward Lingenheld attributed the decline to the growing cost of private universities and a change in Duke’s application. The application had to be filled out in two parts, and “over 100 Black applicants simply failed to complete the second part of the application form” according to Lingenheld.
Today, Black students comprise about 11% of the undergraduate population. The class of 2021 has 233 Black students, making it the largest class of Black students in University history, according to the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.
Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, wrote in an email that multiple factors contribute to college decisions, which complicates speculation about general trends among Black students. These factors include financial aid, mental health, culturally enriching environments, academic options, resources and a sense of community support.
She referenced national reporting about increased enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities and attributed this to the Black Lives Matter movement encouraging students to prioritize their well-being in their college decision-making.
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“I will tell you that it can be challenging to try to live your best life in an environment that you believe or perceive to be possibly hostile to you,” Guinn wrote.
Guinn also stated that current students play a significant role in recruiting prospective students by introducing them to the existing Black community at Duke.
“People have to see themselves in you and want to be in community with you, which is why we work hard to make [Black Student Alliance Invitational weekend] and the spring preview opportunities meaningful and magical,” she wrote.
The Black Student Alliance Invitational began in 1971 as the Black Student Weekend, an effort by the admissions office and the Afro-American Society to increase the number of Black students that matriculated to the University.
Rice University sophomore Malaika Bergner and Harvard University sophomore Mubeen Momodu both attended BSAI 2019, and they celebrated the community that they found at Duke.
“[BSAI] was awesome. I loved it,” Bergner said. “I met some cool students across the country. I loved the cultural showcase, the fraternities and sororities and the clubs and dancing.”
Momodu said that Duke was one of the best campuses he visited, citing the warm weather and athletics.
“I met a lot of friends that I still talk to today from BSAI,” he said.
Both Bergner and Momodu said they were searching for schools that were supportive of Black students in terms of resources and the community.
“I was told by a family member, ‘When you’re looking at colleges, make sure they have a Black house or some sort of cultural center, because that means they care about you,’” Bergner said.
Ultimately, financial aid was the deciding factor in Bergner’s choice to attend Rice over Duke. While she would have needed to do work-study and take out loans to attend Duke, she said Rice gave her a full scholarship through The Rice Investment.
“I was kind of sad because Duke definitely would have been my next choice if it wasn’t for that financial aid part, but over time I felt better about my decision,” Bergner said.
She said that she felt students who grew up in her income bracket “don’t really get to go to Duke unless they get a big merit scholarship.” Her financial situation might have made her feel out of place if she had matriculated to the University, she said.
In contrast, Momodu said that his decision to not attend Duke was partially influenced by the people he met while visiting.
“A lot of the people I met [at BSAI] that I could see being my lifelong friends also got into Harvard,” he said. “Once one of us decided that we were going to go to Harvard, it turned the tide for a lot of us.”
Both Bergner and Momodu also mentioned feeling more at home in Houston and Boston, respectively.