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Duke courts donors’ kids

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DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University has eased standards in recent years to admit 100 to 125 students a year because of family wealth or clout, up from 20 a decade ago, The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 20.

In the last six years, Duke says, it has led all U.S. universities in unrestricted gifts to its annual fund from parents who are not alumni, including $3.1 million in its last fiscal year, the Journal said.

Most universities concede they favor children of alumni donors, the Journal said, but colleges also bend standards to let in children of wealthy or influential families lacking long-standing ties to the schools.

Schools such as Stanford University and Emory University say they sometimes consider parental wealth in admissions decisions, the Journal said, but Duke has been “particularly aggressive in snaring donors through admissions breaks” and reflects “how institutionalized the process has become at some major universities.”

While they graduate at a higher rate than students overall, Duke says, students admitted for “development” reasons get slightly lower grades, and are held to the same relaxed standard as some top athletes, with a priority on graduating, not excelling, the Journal said.

Former Duke President Keith Brodie told the Journal the late Terry Sanford, Duke president from 1969 to 1980, personally met each year with the school’s admissions and development directors to make sure they gave special attention to 200 children of his business, political and media friends.

Duke President Nan Keohane told the Journal the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold affirmative action in a case involving the University of Michigan because preference for children of potential donors is “disproportionately favorable to white students.

“The two are definitely linked,” she said, “and it seems odd to me to allow one sort of preference but not the other.”

Saying Duke did not intentionally boost the number of rich applicants for whom it eased standards, Keohane told the Journal “it is possible that the numbers drifted upward” during the school’s recent $2 billion capital campaign because “more people in development expressed interest in candidates. But this was certainly not a policy directive, or even a conscious choice.”

Peter Vaughn, director of development communications, told the Journal that Duke never traded an admission for a donation.

“There’s no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck,” he said.

Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s admissions director, told the Journal he plans to reduce development admissions to 65 this year to allow “greater flexibility” in shaping this fall’s freshman class.

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