The New York Times has proclaimed that Duke University is an enclave of opulent exclusivity that is unwelcome to students coming from first-generation low-income (FGLI) backgrounds. Let me start off by admitting that I am not a first-generation student; however, I do identify as low-income at Duke. This is attributable to my status as an international student and the difference in purchasing power between the United States Dollar and the Indian Rupee.
Now, I will give the article some credit: some of the anecdotes do resonate with my personal experience. I, for one, do not own any Canada Goose, and I have borne witness to the extravagantly profligate vacations indulged in by some of my peers. I don't even own an iPad. However, it needs to be pointed out that the New York Times only reports one aspect of the multifaceted lives of FGLI students at Duke.
The main data point used in the article to delineate Duke University's purported inferiority vis-à-vis other peer institutions is the lower proportion of its student body eligible for Pell Grants. However, within this analysis, there lies a plethora of confounding variables, each of which could induce a seasoned econometrician to blush.
We find ourselves ensnared in the familiar situation where some economists disavow normative convictions and theoretical models, opting instead to perform hundreds of linear regressions and publish the corresponding p-values and beta-coefficients. This easily allows facile journalists the latitude to report bits and pieces from an informational mosaic. Naturally, the original authors might assert that – they are merely ‘presenting data’, yet to the discerning observer, the underlying ideology they have remains unequivocally conspicuous.
Firstly, note that international scholars — myself included — are ineligible for Pell Grants or any form of federal financial aid. However, Duke has admitted and will continue to admit lots of students coming from diverse regions in Asia and Africa, some of whose economic circumstances are way more dire when juxtaposed with the financial status of the 10th percentile of Americans.
When I step back and think about the people at Duke, I feel that Duke is a tremendous place — a place where I personally have been graced with the privilege of forging friendships with heirs to vast familial fortunes and also had the honor of cultivating relationships with individuals with way more indigent circumstances than my own. Indeed, this exposure to the manifold trials and tribulations faced by my peers has given me a heightened sense of gratitude for my own station in life.
It is true that a considerable cohort of Duke students enjoy lifestyles that far exceed the confines of my financial situation. Nevertheless, the New York Times casts us into the roles of pugilistic adversaries within the theater of a class-based struggle. I repeat, there exists no inherent antipathy, nor should there ever manifest such antagonism between FGLI students and their affluent counterparts. I have gained copious insights into the lives of individuals richer and poorer than me. As a matter of fact, it is the precise lack of external resources and connections within my purview that serves as a catalyst propelling me towards working harder. Affiliation to Duke does not considerably change the fortunes of the Duke students who were always ‘on track’ to be materially affluent. Duke’s most profound influence is arguably on FGLI students.
The gauge that measures a university's commitment to the welfare of low-income students should not necessarily be the number of low-income students it admits but instead the efficacy with which the institution bolsters the prospects and well-being of those low-income students already admitted. In this regard, I am inclined to argue that Duke acquits itself in an exemplary fashion and shows remarkable dedication to the cause.
I do agree that low-income students can find themselves marginalized especially when their more affluent counterparts embark on trips to places such as Cancun, Bermuda, or the Dominican Republic during spring break or partake in Mardi Gras festivities at New Orleans.
However, Duke does possess an acute awareness of the potential social exclusion that low-income students may face and has endeavored to provide a plethora of opportunities, so that those students feel a sense of inclusion and belonging. For instance, Duke offers "Spring Breakthrough'' classes open to all over spring break, during which Duke students partake in intellectually stimulating, ungraded mini courses conducted by professors. Furthermore, I must mention that a cadre of professors, who themselves came from humble origins, have always been ardent advocates and mentors to FGLI students. Duke has also demonstrated its commitment to helping low-income students by endowing them with a dedicated stipend specifically intended to procure winter clothing.
Duke offers its student body a cornucopia of free-to-attend sporting events and other events whose advertisements highlight “free cookies” or “free pizza.” All of these events can be enjoyed by students without them being fiscally burdensome. In case you feel bored on campus, go watch a volleyball match or listen to a lecture by a campus speaker.
Naturally, no situation is flawless, and there do lie potential enhancements in Duke University's support for low-income students. One readily attainable improvement, for instance, is the elimination of accommodation charges for low-income students during the winter recess; if they choose to remain on campus.
Let me end this opinion article by providing one possible reason for the disparity in the number of Pell Grant beneficiaries at Duke University compared to several of its academic counterparts situated within the New England region. The reason I propose is the geographical location of these respective institutions. Specifically, North Carolina is characterized by a lesser degree of urbanization as opposed to the metropolitan environments of some of its New England contemporaries. Consequently, poorer students hailing from urban locales in New England may apply to prestigious ‘moonshot’ universities such as Columbia and Yale — even if they are hard to get into — just because they are geographically close and there’s no harm in applying.
Conversely, poorer students residing in rural North Carolina may be satisfied with institutions located closer to their homes and might not even consider applying to Duke just because it is relatively further away, despite their chances of getting into Duke being as likely as the chances of an urban poor student in Philadelphia getting into the University of Pennsylvania.
Duke can try to improve its outreach among students who would not consider applying to Duke otherwise. There are probably lots of untapped brilliant students in the Carolinas and Tennessee who would be satisfied with their flagship state school, and if Duke can market itself as a viable institution for them, we can definitely improve our intake of FGLI students.
Angikar Ghosal is a Trinity senior and his columns typically run on alternating Mondays.
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