Financial-aid Futures

Writer: 
March 31, 2006
Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University

Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University. Photo: Chris Hildreth

In December, I was presented with a petition signed by more than 2,700 students in support of a new effort to raise major endowment funds for financial aid. It means a lot that Duke students want to be advocates for, not just passive recipients of, university aid. And it's worth reminding ourselves why students so readily identify with this cause.

As the great source of inward enrichment and the great enabler of worldly success, education is arguably the premier privilege our world has to offer. Those of us of a certain age can remember a time when this privilege was available in America on profoundly unequal terms, when a high-quality education was open to some but closed to others--closed to women at certain schools, closed to African Americans in many places--on grounds extraneous to ability or intelligence. During my adult lifetime, those injustices have been remedied in substantial measure. But it would be a poor sequel for less visible economic discriminations to be allowed to continue when gender and racial ones have been abolished.

It's not an idle anxiety. As figures like New York Times columnist David Brooks and Mellon Foundation president William Bowen have increasingly reminded us, in modern America, qualification for college admission has come to have a very high correlation with family income. Indeed, in selecting for merit--and without any conscious economic intention--America's premier universities tend to recruit classes substantially tipped toward wealthier families. Universities alone can't affect or right every cause contributing to the unequal preparation of the young. But precisely for that reason, we have a special obligation to do what we can. The university's commitment to assuming the share of costs that a family cannot afford to pay is our chief way of assuring that we select and recruit students on the grounds of ability, dedication, and promise alone.

Our society has a profound self-interest in seeing that the talented young have access to high-quality education even apart from the question of justice. We tend to take for granted the dynamism that makes our economy and culture throw off so many benefits of wealth and quality of life, but there's no reason to believe these things are self-sustaining. They are driven by human intelligence and creativity and, for their renewal, need cultivation and investment. Making sure that those gifted with these traits get the education that will allow them to give the greatest return is the best way to provide for this social good. It's a safe bet that the talent we will someday want to draw on is not confined to a single social origin or income band. Financial aid is the investment we make to produce the trained talent our future world will require.

When we provide the funds that enable students to come to Duke from other income groups, other regions, other countries, we create a better experience not just for them but for every student. Real education begins when something breaks in on our self-satisfied and apparently sufficient understanding, making us realize that what we call our "thoughts" are only inertial, residual mental placeholders, and that if we want to come anywhere near the truth, we will need to begin to think. It's hard to produce this disruption when people come from the same background and share the same accustomed understandings. But it's hard to stop it when different initial positions come into regular collision. Everything is more interesting when people come to issues from different places.

It may seem that Duke is well positioned to meet the financial needs of its students. But the underlying facts are sources of concern. Duke's financial-aid costs have been growing rapidly in recent years, far faster than the revenues that might offset them. Between the 1999-2000 and 2004-05 academic years, Duke's funding of need-based undergraduate aid rose nearly 75 percent, while tuition and fees--the main source of funding for financial aid--rose 26 percent.

Duke's costs have been driven up by the increased financial need of our students' families, including middle-class families, who find it increasingly difficult to meet college costs. Over time, the declining share of federal co-investment has raised the share that falls to colleges and universities. Twenty years ago, federal funds supported 20 percent of Duke's need-based aid; the figure is 8 percent now. In addition, our costs have grown through increased benefits Duke offers to students on aid--for instance, the grants now available in lieu of summer earnings so that students can take advantage of summer opportunities--and through the introduction of aid to international undergraduates.

Far less of our aid budget comes from restricted endowments than is the case at our peer universities. At some of those schools, as much as 80 to 90 percent of the financial-aid budget is supported by endowments dedicated to that purpose. At Duke, a much younger school, less than 20 percent of annual need-based aid costs are supported by financial-aid endowments. What this means is that Duke meets its aid commitments out of the same pool of funds that support most everything else here, including academic programs. And what this means is that, in lean years or hard times, Duke's need to fund student aid will be in competition with its need to fund the programs that would make top students and faculty members want to come here in the first place.

I want to keep Duke accessible to talented students in all foreseeable futures. And I want to prevent any future collision between two fundamental imperatives--our obligation to social openness and our obligation to academic excellence.