Duke’s Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative

In April 2014, Duke University announced the creation of a new position dedicated to low-income and first-generation college students. Justin Clapp, a previous assistant director in the Office of Financial aid, is the new director of outreach and access.

The new position is the latest in a series of moves the University has made to accommodate low-income and first-generation students over the past five years.

In the summer of 2009, the Duke Institutional Board approved the Dean of Undergraduate Education’s Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative, which was meant to assess and compare the Duke experiences of students who do and do not receive financial aid.

A school newspaper article from 2009 describes some of the steps involved: 

“Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education, and Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid, will run 10 focus groups during the Fall and Spring [2009-2010] semesters composed of 10 to 15 students. Six groups will be students who receive financial aid, and participants will be recruited from a randomly generated list of students who at least receive a Duke grant, Lisker said. The other four focus groups of non-aided students will also be recruited through random selection.”

Despite the ambitious goals of the Initiative, it seemed to move slower than expected. In a school article in March 2010, it was reported that only four focus groups, each with five or six student participants, had been conducted. This was far less than the 10 focus groups expected to be completed in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Steven Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, responded to the delays:

“The issues are deep and I would rather have Donna [Lisker] and Alison Rabil take their time and do it right rather than rush and get some answer. They’ve learned that some of the dimensions we were thinking about looking at aren’t as interesting, and there are new dimensions that we weren’t thinking of looking at that are interesting.

I know change and action at the university level takes time, but the slow pace indicates that the initiative wasn’t on top of the priority list.

While the University moved slowly on the report, the Duke student government made swift moves that spring. In April 2010, United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (UFUSED) was officially founded by the student government of Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Duke University. Originally developed at Washington University in 2009, student members began reaching out to other schools working on issues of socioeconomic diversity. Spencer Eldred, then the Duke Student Government VP of Student Affairs, indicated Duke’s interest in joining. This new coalition was meant as a way to build national support for socioeconomic diversity.

It would take two more years for the Socioeconomic Diversity Initiative Report to be released. In February 2012 when it was finally published, the report included perspectives of 71 students of various financial backgrounds.

The study’s recommendations largely involved financial aid policy, such as revising its policy about the summer savings expectation and improving students’ financial literacy through a course program.

Donna Lisker, associate vice provost of undergraduate education and one of the study’s project investigators, was optimistic about the results when she spoke to the school newspaper:

“There aren’t major issues that have to be addressed,” Lisker said. “It’s not like we went in and we found that we had two profoundly different worlds. What we found is a series of small differences and addressing those could certainly have an additive impact.”

The recommendations inspired various changes throughout the university. The financial aid office instituted a series of reforms, such as covering course fees and paying for health services for students on aid. It also launched a financial literacy website geared towards all students. All extraneous class-related fees, such as those for trips, must now go through the bursar’s office so that students who quality can be reimbursed. Nowicki even cited the report as the reason for the creation of the new director of outreach and access position.

After the report was published, other key changes were made for first-generation students.

Though the SDI report didn’t focus much on the social adjustment of low-income and first-generation students, it did have a paragraph where it mentioned the potential for the creation of a pre-orientation program. It said:

“We may want to consider ways to lessen the initial impact of SES differences. For example, we know that students who participate in pre-Orientation programs develop friendships before the majority of students arrive on campus and that friendships across SES classes develop through membership in the same group…”

The report recommended creating more pre-orientation program opportunities for students.

In the fall of 2012, Duke did just that. It launched 1G, a pre-orientation program for first-generation students. Fifty-three freshmen participated in the inaugural program, which included information sessions on buying books, campus jobs, and working with faculty members.

Creating the pre-orientation program was a great step in addressing social barriers students encounter and it’s still going strong two years later.

In addition to the new pre-orientation program, there has been mention of the 1G Network in a few articles. According to a 2012 article, the 1G Network at Duke is dedicated to offering advising, peer mentoring, and social opportunities for first-generation students throughout the school year. There isn’t a website for this network and it may no longer be active, but it does show a level of commitment to first-generation students throughout the years.

Despite Duke’s initiatives to address socioeconomic barriers, how much are they improving the campus culture?

In an overwhelmingly wealthy institution, the class divides are felt beyond monetary expenses. They are felt through the lack of openness regarding conversations on class identity and classism, which further isolates low-income students.

KellyNoel Waldorf, a Duke senior in 2013, published a powerful article on the class divide at Duke. She says:

“While writing my resume, I put McDonald’s under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to put that on your resume?” In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this “lowly” position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.”

That article went viral and points to the silence on class issues at Duke.

Another article written by Karina Santellano, a current Duke senior, describes her frustration with being a low-income, Latina student.

“Having to continually explain why I matter to a community that I’m supposed to belong to but wasn’t built for me—a low-income, first-generation Latina college student—is exasperating. I didn’t realize coming to an institution like Duke would require me to explain why my existence should be taken into consideration.”

These two narratives show that there is still work to be done at Duke regarding openness to class and other diverse identities.

While the financial aid changes, pre-orientation program, and the new staff member are positive steps, the University must do more to build an inclusive culture. With the addition of a new staff member, it has the opportunity to make important changes, such as holding more conversations on class and inequality.

In addition to that, it has to crucially dedicate itself to increasing socioeconomic diversity. The New York Times recently ranked 100 top colleges and universities on economic diversity and Duke ranked way below the pack.

According to the rankings, Duke has an average of 13.7% Federal Pell grant recipients (Pell grants usually go to students in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution). The rankings were based on the average share of entering freshmen from 2011-2012 through 2013-2014 receiving Pell grants.

A campus can’t truly become inclusive to people of all backgrounds if there is a small minority and a large majority.

If Duke truly wants to build a more inclusive campus culture, it has to increase access. It also has to critically examine how it can facilitate the building of a community for current low-income and first-generation students. Not all students will need these programs, but for others it will ensure they don’t spend their Duke experiences feeling alone and isolated.

Administrators can also continue to use the SDI report to inform future changes because it’s a powerful snapshot of the current class divide.


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