Monday, February 19, 2018

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Duke University

It's been a long time since I was able to visit a college! Last summer my wife and I bought a new house and moving and getting settled pretty much consumed my free time for the last six months. But things are calming down, and I expect to be able to do a few more college visits in 2018. 

In mid-February I had the chance to visit Duke University. I was very impressed with the school and also with the town of Durham, which looks like a really excellent college town. And located as it is in the "Research Triangle" with close proximity to the University of North Carolina, it would be a great place for a family to do a multi-school college visit.  There's a lot to like about Duke, and while it is one of the most selective institutions in America, for students who are looking at that kind of college it would be an excellent option.


Duke University At A Glance

Size:Just over 6,800 undergraduates (approximately 49% women/ 51% men). Duke University is one of the most selective colleges in America, having accepted about 3,300 of their 34,800 applicants to fill a first-year class of 1,750-- an overall acceptance rate of around 9.5%. 
Programs of Study:53 majors and 52 minors for undergraduates with 33 interdisciplinary certificates; Duke is a research university with graduate programs in business, law and medicine (among others), and students interested in pursuing careers in these fields are well prepared.
Sports:Duke has 25 NCAA Division I sports (13 women's/12 men's). Duke also has 37 club sports (which compete intercollegiately) and numerous intramural athletic options.
Campus Life:Duke's website lists over 700 student activity organizations. Over 100 clubs and organizations on campus; 22 fraternities and 17 sororities. On campus housing is guaranteed for all four years, and students are required to live on campus for the first 3 years. 
Costs & Aid:Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $72,200.  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS Profile. Duke has a financial aid budget of nearly $120 million and are fully "need-blind"; they guarantee to meet 100% of the need for admitted students who are American citizens or permanent residents.
Deadlines:Duke University applicants can choose binding Early Decision, with a deadline of November 1 or Regular Decision with a deadline of January 2.  Students use the Common App or the Coalition App. The application fee is $85.
Tests:Duke requires considerable testing--students must submit either ACT (with optional writing section) or SAT (with optional essay). Students who take the SAT are encouraged to take two Subject Tests as well.  



©2018 Ethan Lewis
Duke University traces it's history back to the 19th century when it was a Methodist school called Trinity College. But the generosity of the Duke family (founders of American Tobacco, an original stock on the Dow Jones Industrial Average) financed massive expansion. Today, Duke University boasts a 9,350 acre campus including a 7,000 acre forest, a 55 acre garden, 2 undergraduate colleges and 9 graduate and professional schools. There is also a new campus in China.

Undergraduate applicants must specify whether they want to be in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences or the Pratt College of Engineering. Approximately 80% of students choose Trinity leaving only a fifth of students in Pratt (though students can minor, or even double-major in the other college); this makes Duke a good choice for talented students interested in engineering or computer science who seek a small, close-knit community. According to the admissions presentation, 12% of Duke students double major; 12% have a major and an interdisciplinary certificate and fully half of all students have a major and a minor. According to my tour guide, Duke (especially Pratt) is generous with awarding Advanced Placement credit, which helps students to carry such heavy loads. Overall, the most popular majors include:

  • Public Policy Studies
  • Economics
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Psychology
  • Biology

The admissions presentation also shared the most popular careers for Duke graduates (I wish everyone did this!) and they include: consulting, education, engineering, finance and health.

Duke proudly touts a commitment to diversity; 25% of the class of 2021 identify as Asian, 13% as African-American and 14% as Hispanic/Latinx.  Additionally, Duke has students from over 180 countries and all 50 states; the states sending the most students to Durham last year were:

  • North Carolina
  • New York
  • Florida
  • California
  • Texas

As you might know, North Carolina has been in the news over the last year or more due to issues involving inclusion for LGBT people. The Research Triangle area (along with Charlotte, Greensboro and Asheville) is more liberal than the rest of the state. Along those lines, I found it noteworthy that Assistant Director of Admissions Chris Briggs (who gave an excellent presentation for the info session) immediately introduced his preferred pronouns and invited us to visit the welcome center bathrooms ("two gender specific restrooms; use whichever you feel most comfortable with"). This was in a crowded room of nearly 400 visitors and I can imagine admissions reps at other schools being more cautious to avoid seeming too "liberal"; but I interpreted it as a very warm welcome and gesture of inclusion and community that gave me very positive feelings about Duke.

© 2018 Ethan Lewis
The tour only covered the West Campus (home to lovely neo-Gothic architecture). While there are quite a few residential options on West Campus, all first-years live on East Campus, which I didn't get to see (our tour guide encouraged visitors to approach students at random and ask to see their dorms, but I decided not to). After my visit the Admissions Office sent me a link to a webpage that shows all the Freshman housing options. My tour guide, Liz, was very enthusiastic in her description of Freshman housing; two things that stood out to me were that every dorm has a resident faculty member to add mentorship and support to the students and each dorm has a librarian attached to it so students always have someone to go to for help with research. As a veteran of 19 years' teaching at boarding schools who is married to a school librarian, these are both excellent features. Way to go, Duke!

© 2018 Ethan Lewis
The West Campus is not small, but it is quite walkable with a great deal of lighting--lampposts were everywhere and I expect that even students on campus late at night (the libraries are open 24/7) won't have to worry about it being too dark. Liz told us that she thinks it takes 20 minutes maximum to walk from one end to the other.

Shuttle buses run all day and most of the night (Liz said they don't run from 4-7am) to help students get from place to place (including the other campuses and downtown Durham). For the automotively inclined, all students, including first-years, can have cars on campus.

Due to the large number of visitors, the list of things NOT shown on this tour was lengthy. We were not shown:

  • the inside of any of the academic spaces (usually these are included)
  • the inside of any of the libraries (usually these are included)
  • the inside of any dining or health facility (usually these are included)
  • the inside or outside of any dorms
  • the inside or outside of any athletic/recreational athletic facility

 © 2018 Ethan Lewis
I've been on a LOT of campus tours, and it's not unusual for guides to skip some of these, and with hundreds of visitors on the day I was there I can understand the wish to avoid crowding or inconveniencing students and staff. That said, I think these are all important things to see. If possible (and especially if you are traveling a great distance), you might want to try to contact the admissions staff prior to your visit to make sure that you can see some or all of these spaces. I did make a point of eating lunch on campus at the new Brodhead Center, which contains over a dozen really awesome restaurants--I got an amazing BBQ Seitan dish at a vegan place, which was next to an Indian place, next to a Southern place, near an Italian place, and on and on. Do yourself a favor and check this place out if you are on campus--your stomach will thank you!

Student life wise, Liz told us that about 1/3 of students participate in Greek life, but she noted that pledging doesn't start until winter of the first year, so new arrivals can focus on academics. This policy also times it to coincide with basketball season, which is a pretty big deal at Duke. I didn't get any pictures (I was pressed for time), but my visit was smack in the middle of "tenting", when students set up a 24-hour per day campsite for six weeks to make sure that they are at the front of the line for tickets against arch-rival UNC in their annual basketball game. The tent city is known as Krzyzewski-ville after legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. This was held out as a particular example of school spirit, but it seems like Duke students are extremely proud of being Duke students, and not just for basketball.

© 2018 Ethan Lewis
Academically, Duke is clearly a top-notch educational institution. The admissions presentation spent some time talking about an interesting program called "Duke Engage", which is a competitive (students have to apply) program that pays all the expenses for a student-planned educational trip with a social engagement component for a summer. Chris Briggs described it as "a fully funded chance to do something in the world; an 8-10 week summer experience to go humbly to learn and serve". Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Mrs. Gates is a double alumn of Duke), this is a VERY exciting program. I read this article in the Duke magazine about it, which indicates that 80% of students who do Duke Engage "say that the experience influenced their career plans". I have no doubt that this would be a very strong reason to consider Duke for many students, especially those who are already committed to community service and engagement. 

Chris Briggs told the audience at the info session that there are "no minimums or cutoffs" and "no formulas" for admission to Duke. He said that Duke is looking for "talented, engaged, impactful, ambitious, thoughtful and diverse students". Students should take 5 academic courses per year, including 3 years of foreign language and applicants to Pratt College of Engineering need to take Calculus, with physics being "strongly recommended". We were told that students should take the most rigorous courses available to them and that they should aim for "not straight A's, but more A's than any other grade".  While he was saying this, I was reading the admissions guide they hand out to visitors that notes that "[m]ost students who apply to Duke are in the top 10% of their class." This indicates to me that students who can't take the most rigorous courses at their school might not stand a good chance. In other words, a student can be on a path where the most rigorous courses she can take are not the hardest at the high school, and that student might have difficulty gaining admission.

Due to my job with Method Test Prep I am especially attuned to how colleges employ standardized tests in the admissions process, and Duke has definitely gone "all in" on these tests. While Chris Briggs tried to downplay the tests by saying "we know it's just one Saturday in your life", the admissions guide says that students have to submit "either the ACT with writing or the SAT with essay. We also strongly recommend that students who submit the SAT also submit two Subject Test scores of their choice."  Realistically speaking, it stands to reason that most students applying to Duke will do the ACT and/or SAT multiple times, and two Subject Tests would be another test date; this means that Duke applicants will be paying a lot of extra money to the test agencies and will need to start doing it no later than winter of Junior year to be able to fit everything in.

And then when you look at the actual test scores Duke receives, the picture becomes more complicated. I totally believe them when they say that "there is no minimum score requirement", but these numbers somewhat belie that:

Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Middle 50% SAT: 1440-1570 | Middle 50% ACT: 31-35
Pratt College of Engineering: Middle 50% SAT: 1490-1570 | Middle 50% ACT: 33-35

In other words, 25% of admitted students get perfect 36 scores on the ACT, something that only one-tenth of one percent of test takers manage to do; the rate is similar for the students who score in the 99th percentile on the SAT (which is true for scores over 1530).  Of course it also means that 25% of students score lower but how much lower? And do those students stand out on campus? I don't think that people with average scores have "no chance" at Duke, but this is definitely a place where higher scores will really help.

Applicants can use either the Common Application or the Coalition Application. Applicants to Duke can choose between Early Decision and Regular Decision, and while the official line makes clear that there is a great advantage to applying early. Take a look at last year's numbers:

Early Decision Total Applicants: 3,503 |  Regular Decision Total Applicants: 30,985
Early Decision Total Accepted:      864  |  Regular Decision Total Accepted:      2,423
Early Decision % Accepted:          25%  |  Regular Decision % Accepted:               8%

Enrolled: 859 from ED, 892 from RD

Half the class came from the Early Decision pool. Does this mean that it's "easier" to get in by applying early? I doubt it, but it shows how very difficult it is to get into Duke through the regular admissions path. Oh, and Duke claims not to track "demonstrated interest" in admissions (though I think it's still worth it to visit such a super place).

Duke is beyond generous with Financial Aid. Families must submit the FAFSA and the CSS/Profile to allow Duke to best estimate their need. Duke is completely need-blind and they guarantee to meet 100% of need (for American citizens and permanent residents). Families who earn less than $60,000 per year will have NO parent contribution; that said, "half of families receiving aid" earned over $100,000. Aid comes primarily in the form of grants and work-study; loans are capped at $5,000 per year. The average amount of student debt at graduation is $18,000 (over $12,000 less than the national average). Applicants are automatically considered for over 100 merit scholarships, over half of which have "a need based component".  So yes, the "sticker price" of over $72,000 per year is eye-popping, but very few people will actually pay that much to go to Duke, so excellent students of limited means should definitely consider Duke when looking at colleges.

Duke may not be for everyone. While my tour guide Liz made a point of saying how helpful and supportive the faculty and fellow students are, my guess is that students who are not Type A, highly motivated, hard-working people might struggle at Duke. Further, while there seem to be ample support resources, people who aren't already very good students would probably fall behind. Based on hearing Liz' stories, reading some issues of the campus newspaper and the alumni magazine, Duke students seem to be proud of how "hard" Duke is and many people aren't looking for that in a college. But future doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople could do much worse than Duke. Factor in the charming city of Durham and the opportunities for jobs and cultural experience in the Research Triangle (one of America's fastest-growing metro areas) and Duke looks like a very good choice.