The Cost of Being at Duke

Duke's Tuition Increases and Lack of Student Responses

Why This Matters | Brett Finkelstein | March 23, 2016

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Duke is a brand, and there’s no denying that. Just the name and the word alone- Duke- carries so much meaning. It’s a prestigious and consistently top-ranked school. It’s located in North Carolina’s thriving Research Triangle. It’s a 5 time (and counting) NCAA championship men’s basketball team. It’s a chapel. It’s a better blue than Carolina light blue. It’s also expensive.

For students, there’s a price to pay for this brand and its reputation. When any of us walk around campus in that $40 Duke sweatshirt we purchased from the bookstore, we actually payed a lot more just to earn the right to wear it. The problem is the growing price we pay.

In a 2015 Business Insider report, Duke earned the #13 ranking for the America’s 20 most expensive universities, with a total cost for an undergraduate to attend priced at $64,134.

For the 2016-2017 year, the total cost has risen to $65,703 after a 3.8% tuition fee increase for the following academic year was approved by the University’s Board of Trustees in late February. The increases applied to undergraduate tuition as well as varying rates for graduation tuition ranging from 3 to 7.3% increases depending on the specific school. This has been a trend for Duke, copying a previously approved 3.8% tuition fee increase the year before.

There’s not doubt that it’s a high price to pay for the Duke name. But doubt does remain in looking to student responses to the matter. My question is, then, why does the Chronicle article posted February, 27, 2016 announcing the increase only have 18 comments? And why did I only see a few postings on my Facebook newsfeed responding to it? And why did I wait until now to comment myself?

It comes from a chilling difference between my study abroad experience in South Africa during student protests of tuition fees and the response here at Duke. When South African President Jacob Zuma announced 10% tuition fee increases for the following academic year, students erupted across all South African University campuses. These ranged from marches to sit-ins to violent rallies that eventually resulted in closing of campus, the cancellation of the final weeks of lectures, and postponing of the entire finals schedule.

The fight for equal educational opportunity in South Africa didn’t stop after the President conceded in November, as students continued their protesting that 0% tuition fee increases is still too much.

The South African #FeesMustFall movement is about so much more than just the price of education. 9,000 miles away even CNN reported on their social activism and student demands for greater equality. It comes to be defined as access to “quality and accessible education” which is about more than just a cost value.

In the context of our private college in the U.S., Duke’s Financial Aid Website seems to address exactly what South African students have been fighting for: With more than half of the Duke undergraduate student body receiving some form of financial aid, we are committed to enabling every admitted student the option to attend.” However, a key difference in language exists. Duke emphasizes the option to attend, whereas South African students demand “quality and accessible education” for everyone, equally.

There’s also a further separation between Duke, as a private institution, and the public South African Universities. Regardless, this problem of equality of opportunity for education isn’t limited to South African Universities, like the University of Cape Town where I was studying. It’s here at Duke, it’s just not being discussed or thought of in the same terms. Maybe that’s because at a private institution like Duke, there’s not the same requirement to discuss it. The public universities get caught up in the politics of an obligation to the right- and an equal right- to this type of higher level education. Duke does not.

Financial aid can rarely completely support a student struggling to afford a university education, whether that’s Duke or elsewhere. However, this notion of “an option to attend” a university is also problematic in itself. What about students that are unable to attend? What about paying off student loans after graduation? There are major implications after attending a college or university when it comes to recognizing debt as a result of paying for that education in the first place.

Increased tuition fees are becoming a standard, and one that hopefully won’t continue in the future.

We pay the price to be Duke students and to proudly say we are Blue Devils. However, that doesn’t come without some interrogation into what price this should be, especially now with a concerning pattern of rising fees. There will always be a price we pay, and by no means do I expect that to be a low price for a private university like this one. It’s more about questioning what we as students value, from “accessibility” to “quality” to this open-ended notion of “ability to attend” in terms of a total cost.

So, what is too much? I don’t know. What I do know is that, looking to these prices, it’s one part of Duke I’m not so proud of.