Local & State Voices

Money and admissions? At Duke, that’s nothing new

For years, Duke University gave special consideration for admission to students of wealthy parents.
For years, Duke University gave special consideration for admission to students of wealthy parents. N&O file photo

The scandal involving rich parents who hired specialists to cheat their kids into prestigious colleges is further evidence that some rich parents are corrupt and stupid. A smarter course would have been to skip the sleazy middleman and deal directly with the schools.

There’s a rich tradition of schools admitting otherwise unqualified students from wealthy families. A prominent example is Harvard’s admission of Jared Kushner, a lackluster prep school student, after his father pledged $2.5 million to the school. The family denies any tit-for-tat. Harvard is mum.

Daniel J. Golden, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, documented this practice in an investigation that won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize. His findings involved many prestigious schools, including Duke University. His Feb. 20, 2003, report was headlined “Seeking Big Donors, Duke Woos Beneficent ‘Development Admits’.”

“Development admits” was the term used for students who received special consideration for admission because of their parents’ wealth. Usually they had worse academic records than usually required for admission. Often their parents became big donors to the schools.

Golden reported that the late Terry Sanford, Duke president from 1969 to 1985, used development admits “on a large scale.”

Sanford, a gregarious, widely respected and well-connected former N.C. governor, had what he called an “outrageous ambition” to elevate Duke from a regional university to national prominence.

That would require fund-raising on an unprecedented level. When Sanford became president, Duke had a $1 million operating deficit and alumni giving was moribund.

Sanford was not reluctant to ask rich people for money, even those who had little or no prior relationship with Duke.

Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.

Duke also zeroed in on wealthy families. Here’s how reporter Golden described the process:

“Through its own network and names supplied by trustees, alumni, donors and others, the development office identifies about 500 likely applicants with rich or powerful parents who are not alumni. (Children of major alumni donors are given similar preference in a separate process.) It cultivates them with campus tours and basic admissions advice; for instance, applying early increases their chances. It also relays the names to the admissions office, which returns word if any of the students forget to apply – so development can remind them.”

Sanford was wildly successful. During his presidency alumni giving rose from $750,000 to nearly $6 million and Duke’s endowment grew from $80 million to $200 million. By the time he retired, Duke was recognized as a great national university.

After Sanford, Duke officials said family wealth no longer played a dominant role in admissions. But hardly anyone denies it remains a factor, there and elsewhere.

Duke continues to enroll an imposing number of wealthy students. According to a 2017 report in the New York Times, 19.7 percent of Duke students came from families with incomes in the top 1 percent nationally ($630,000 and up), more than Yale (18.7 percent), Princeton (17 percent), Harvard (15.1 percent) and UNC Chapel Hill (6 percent).

Ed Williams, a University of Mississippi graduate, retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Observer’s editorial pages. His son is a graduate of Princeton and Duke law school.