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Duke’s enrollment is soaring. A look at where and how it’s happening.

Duke University is educating a lot more students these days, but its growth hasn’t been even across programs, schools and demographics.
Duke University is educating a lot more students these days, but its growth hasn’t been even across programs, schools and demographics. The Herald-Sun

Duke University’s student population grew substantially during former President Richard Brodhead’s adminintration, but not in an across-the-board way, an analysis from the campus provost’s office says.

Between 2004 and 2016, the university went from serving about 13,000 students a year to roughly 15,500, but the growth overwhelmingly occurred in Duke’s master’s degree programs.

Percentage-wise, master’s offerings accounted for 78 percent of the change, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jennifer Francis recently told the Academic Council, Duke’s version of a faculty senate.

In-house checks suggest the broad trend is “actually very similar to what a lot of universities out there” experienced in that time, she said, having previously noted that a big chunk of Duke’s growth happened in 2005 and much of the rest unfolded between 2008 and 2011 during the economic downturn.

The growth also heralded a change in the university’s demographics, with “non-U.S. citizens” accounting for half the expansion in annual enrollment and Asian-Americans another 36 percent.

Hispanics constituted another 15 percent of the change, while whites and blacks made up 3 percent and 4 percent of it, respectively.

Nor was the change evenly spread among Duke’s various academic programs. Between them, the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke School of Medicine accounted for half the growth, with Pratt claiming much the bigger share of those two.

The number of foreign students enrolled at Duke – and present on campus, as opposed to people taking courses only from online programs – nearly doubled, going from 1,672 students in 2004 to 3,156 in 2016. Of those, 39 percent were from China.

Gender-wise, the undergraduate student body is about evenly split between men and women, and the master’s level group is about 45 percent female. Those balances stayed “roughly constant over time,” Francis’ presentation said.

But there was an eye-catching drop in the percentage of female Ph.D. students. Whereas they made up about 47 percent of doctoral enrollments in 2004, by 2016 they’d dropped off to about 43 percent even as Duke’s total Ph.D.-program enrollments grew.

Francis said that while she hadn’t done a formal statistical test, the change appeared significant, and also one the Pratt School’s growth wouldn’t account for. She was alluding to the fact that engineering is traditionally a male-dominated profession.

The numbers there drew questions from the council, notably from Sanford School of Public Policy professor Elizabeth Ananat. She noted that nationally, about 52 percent of the country’s new Ph.D. holders are women.

“Our trend appears significantly different, in magnitude and direction,” Ananat said.

Her observation drew no quarrel from Francis or Provost Sally Kornbluth, with the provost saying it would be “interesting” to look at program-by-program numbers on doctoral candidates. She speculated that some schools and departments might’ve triggered the change by cutting back on their offerings.

“I don’t know if it’s the competitive market as much as intentional choice by some programs to reduce the number of students they admitted, because of grant dollars and so forth,” Kornbluth said. “That’s my guess about what’s going on.”

On the broader point about master’s programs fueling most of the university’s recent growth, Francis said that for now there aren’t “a lot of conclusions to draw.” But the provost’s office and other groups at Duke are are busy “putting things in place” to see to it that new master’s programs are “go through a rigorous third-year review” to see if they need changing.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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