Each August, we take an astonishing photo of Duke’s new freshmen, gathered in block numbers spelling out their class year on the East Campus quad. It’s an unforgettable image of the first time this group of 1,700 individuals experience themselves as a class.
When I speak to groups of alumni around the country, I sometimes ask: What would it be like if half of this exuberant crowd were suddenly to disappear? That’s what Duke would be like without financial aid.
More than half of our undergraduates receive some form of Duke financial aid. Duke offers merit scholarships and athletic scholarships, but the vast majority of these students on aid are receiving need-based aid. At a time when paying for college is a worry for many families, Duke is proud to be one of a dwindling group of American universities that are need-blind in admissions and meet full demonstrated need. That means that when a student applies to Duke, the application is considered on the basis of talent and potential—not on the family’s ability to pay.
Why does Duke make this commitment? Universities are in the human-potential business. Duke draws students of the highest talent so that we can help them build and discover their powers and become people who can deliver their full benefit to the world. Our society needs all its best talent, and a country that supplies education only to those who can afford it is a country that leaves too much potential underdeveloped.
In addition, we know that Duke is a much more vibrant place—intellectually, socially, culturally—as a result of welcoming people of all experiences and backgrounds. Indeed, the very nature of a Duke education becomes more profound and far-reaching when our intellectual community draws its members from the broadest possible arc, including in socioeconomic measures. Discussions that begin in the classroom and spill over to the dorm, the dining hall, the quad, about America’s most pressing challenges—conversations about public education, health care, justice, economic opportunity— are deeper and richer when students share perspectives reflecting a wide range of human experience. And the fact that our student body is made up of splendidly talented people in a hundred different forms increases the attraction for more splendidly talented people to come join them.
Of course, it is not enough to open the doors of opportunity; we also need to ensure that students have the support they need to thrive. Students who are the first in their families to go to college may lack the easy knowledge of how to navigate a college environment. They may be too embarrassed to admit they find an assignment bewildering and too nervous to ask a professor for help.
To take a meaningful step toward building an inclusive community for all, we recently created the Washington Duke Scholars program. It’s named for the father of James B. Duke, who walked home after the Civil War with fifty cents in his pocket and quickly rose to success, leading him to invest in Trinity College because of his belief in the power of education to lift individuals and communities. The Washington Duke Scholars will be talented, high-achieving students who come from low-income families and who are the first in their families to attend college. In addition to enhanced financial aid, these scholars will receive special mentoring, including a pre-orientation program designed to smooth their transition to college so that they can succeed just like the rest of our students.
Duke’s commitment to financial aid is expensive. In the last ten years, Duke’s annual cost of need-based financial aid doubled, from $45 million to more than $100 million each year. Annual Fund contributions are a major source of support, as was the Financial Aid Initiative I led in 2005.
To strengthen Duke’s long-term capacity to support our students, Duke has embarked on a new drive to build endowment resources for need-based undergraduate financial aid. We’re very fortunate that Fred ’73 and Barbara ’75 Sutherland, together with The Duke Endowment and other donors, have created a matching fund in excess of $20 million to inspire others to give. Alumni who want to help the next generation of students experience the benefits they received at Duke will now find that the Access and Opportunity Challenge is a way to make the impact of their gifts even greater. We hope that more alumni will join the effort to keep Duke’s doors open to students regardless of their family circumstances. Financial aid is Duke’s priority before all other priorities: To educate the most varied talent in the most dynamic and invigorating educational environment is Duke’s highest calling.