Education

Incoming Duke president prioritizes student aid

Incoming Duke University President Vince Price (center) answers a question during a special getting-acquainted meeting Thursday with Duke's Academic Council. He's flanked on the left by the council's chairwoman, engineering professor Nan Jokerst, and on the right by its chairman-elect, public policy professor Don Taylor.
Incoming Duke University President Vince Price (center) answers a question during a special getting-acquainted meeting Thursday with Duke's Academic Council. He's flanked on the left by the council's chairwoman, engineering professor Nan Jokerst, and on the right by its chairman-elect, public policy professor Don Taylor.

Underwriting need-based financial aid for undergraduates “will absolutely be a top priority” for Duke University going forward, as it has been already, incoming President Vince Price told faculty members on Thursday.

As a priority, that answers both the concern families have about the rising cost of higher education, and the need to recruit a broader and more diverse range of talent than universities did historically, Price said during a special, get-acquainted meeting with Duke’s Academic Council.

In recruiting students, “we need to be in the business of identifying diamonds in the rough,” meaning Duke has to “be aggressive in going out and looking for talent in those places where it is thriving despite obstacles,” he said in answer to a question from philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg.

But financially, that also “requires putting substantial resources in front of families that need them,” Price said, agreeing that Duke needs to figure out how sustain its aid programs.

Thursday’s meeting, called and organized at Price’s behest, gave the incoming president and professors serving on Duke’s version of a faculty senate the chance to size up each other and get a sense of what’s on their minds as the university prepares for a change in chief executives.

Come July 1, Price will replace current President Richard Brodhead, who’s retiring after a 13-year run in the university’s top office.

Now the provost at the University of Pennsylvania, Price will become Duke’s 10th president.

Rosenberg’s questions about financial aid alluded as much to Penn’s practices as Duke’s, as both private universities practice “need-blind” admission, meaning they offer class slots to candidates without regard to their ability to pay tuition and fees.

They then make up the difference with financial-aid packages, the major difference being that Penn supplies only grants while Duke uses a mix of grants and repayable student loans.

Price said Penn is among “only a handful of institutions” that have gone the all-grants route, and was noncommittal on whether he’d advocate a similar strategy for Duke.

But he said it would “be nice to reduce the loan burden,” particularly because given the possibility that having debts to repay can dictate students’ post-graduation career choices.

Agreeing with a point from public policy professor Don Taylor, incoming chairman of the Academic Council, he added that aid is also an issue for graduate and professional students.

“If you have, for example, attorneys who would like to go into public practice but because of loan burdens feel they need to go to a New York law firm, that’s a shame,” Price said, adding that the ideal should be to help students find a way to follow their interests.

Taylor, who now chairs Duke’s University Priorities Committee, said that advisory group has been examining the state of the institution’s master’s-level programs, and heard from deans that some graduate students are having their academic careers “truncated because of debt.”

Price added that in research-centric universities in general, master’s level education tends to “get a little short shrift compared to undergraduate and doctoral-level programs.”

“That’s unfortunate, in my view,” he said, continuing that universities often treat master’s programs as revenue sources, a way generate money for more favored programs, although to students a master’s can be valuable in its own right.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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