By JONATHAN KAUFMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
DURHAM, N.C. -- After a full day of classes, Duke University junior Julie Byrd, backpack slung over her shoulder, brown hair pulled into a pony tail, strides across Duke's main campus. This is the heart of Duke's student life: imposing gothic buildings and carefully manicured lawns, an easy walk to classes, desirable housing, fraternity parties every weekend. The student center includes fast-food restaurants and a movie theater. Just down the road is the arena that's home to the national champion Blue Devils basketball team.
Ms. Byrd hops a shuttle bus for a five-minute ride to another part of campus -- a collection of small brown apartment buildings with a scruffy lawn out front and an asphalt parking lot. "The nice stuff is my roommate's," she says with a laugh, opening the door to her dorm room. She gestures to the futon and a $1,300 Dell computer on a desk in the living room. Ms. Byrd's computer, on a desk in the bedroom the women share, was built by her brother when she was a freshman and regularly crashes. A few days ago, another student gave Ms. Byrd computer parts he was planning to throw away. "That saved me 60-70-80 bucks," she says.
Ms. Byrd, who grew up in a tidy three-bedroom house at the end of a dirt road in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, lacks something most of her classmates have: money. Duke costs $35,000 annually -- as much as her parents, a prison guard and a teacher's aide, earn in a year. Even with scholarships and financial aid, Ms. Byrd's parents, who also have a son at North Carolina State, pay Duke about $9,000 a year, while Ms. Byrd assumes more than $5,000 a year in student loans.
Class has always been a part of college life, especially on elite college campuses. But these days, economic distinctions are also sharpening, reflecting a decade of growing affluence and changing campus policies that have pushed money to the forefront of everyday student life.
Choosing a dorm room at a school such as Duke can be like choosing a hotel room. Prices range from $3,200 a year for the one bedroom apartment Ms. Byrd shares with a roommate to $6,200 for an air-conditioned single room in a more central location.
Room With a View
At Boston University, a tiered system now allows students to buy better on-campus housing, including a top-of-the-line room with a river view and high-speed Internet connection for $8,660 a year -- 60% more than a standard B.U. dorm room. Penn State students who want to avoid traditionally seedy off-campus apartments can move into "Nittany Pointe," a privately-run student apartment complex with balconies, a pool and exercise room. At Washington University in St. Louis, so many students now use cellphones that professors complain they can't reach students through their campus numbers.
Nationally, students spend more than $600 a month on nonacademic discretionary items such as eating out, movies, clothes and CDs, according to Credit Healthy Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., firm that tracks student spending. At Duke the figure is $825 a month, or almost $10,000 annually, the company says.
For all the signs of an economic slowdown, students on Duke's campus are flush with cash. While half of American families earn under $50,000 a year, just 15% of Duke's students come from families in that income bracket. Sixty percent of Duke families make more than $100,000 a year. The college's student paper advertises three-night $509 trips to Cancun. Last year, a Duke professor teaching a class on the Internet asked his students what they most commonly used the Internet for. The answer: checking their stock portfolios.
"On any campus you are going to find haves and have-nots," says Ambika Kumar, a senior editor at the campus paper whose parents are sending her to France for a year after graduation. "But here it's a pretty wealthy crowd to begin with."
People who went to college two or three decades ago may remember dining halls as social centers and also as economic equalizers. But today, instead of gathering in a common dining hall and lining up for dinner, Duke students buy a debit card at the start of the school year with a value ranging from $800 to $1,900. They use that card at dining halls, on-campus fast food outlets, even delivery services from Durham restaurants. Parents can add money to the card as the year goes on.
The system means more meal choices for students. But it turns every meal into an economic choice for students such as Ms. Byrd. "It costs $7 to get a meat and potatoes dinner in the dining hall," she says. "I can fix it for $4 and it lasts for two meals." She leans under a counter in a small kitchenette and pulls out a box of couscous with the price still attached: $2.09. "That's dinner," she says.
When she graduates next year, Ms. Byrd will be the first university graduate in her family. "People here can't comprehend that my parents didn't go to college, that my Dad's a prison guard," Ms. Byrd says. "I think we're doing a good job on how we deal with different races. But there are class issues in addition to race."
Indeed, unlike blacks or Latinos on campus, poor and working-class white students are largely invisible. There are no special programs for them, no easily identifiable professors they can seek out, no student groups to help them belong.
Duke officials say they're concerned by growing class distinctions on campus. Duke has the worst "economic diversity" of any of the elite colleges, according to Director of Admissions Christoph Guttentag, with a smaller proportion of poor-to-lower-middle-class students than Ivy League and other top-tier schools.
Mr. Guttentag says the university is now sending out more materials that emphasize the availability of financial aid. The school also says it has been changing financial-aid policies to try to equalize access to campus rooms. John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs, says that by 2006 the school plans to require all sophomores, regardless of income, to live in the coveted dorms on the main campus. Mr. Burness says Duke's meal system is extremely popular with students but may have the "unintended consequence" of marginalizing poorer students.
Even when the school attempts to address these gaps, it runs into surprising obstacles. Five years ago, John Mack, the former president of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., who grew up in a blue-collar mill town and attended Duke on a football scholarship, endowed a four-year all-expense-paid scholarship for a student from his hometown of Mooresville, N.C., 100 miles south of where Ms. Byrd grew up.
Last year Duke sent an admissions officer to Mr. Mack's old high school and four other high schools nearby to encourage applications. But few poor or working-class students from Mr. Mack's hometown have applied for the scholarship.
"Colleges have been so upfront about affirmative action that African-American students who do well are encouraged to aim high," says Carolyn Gerber, the admissions officer, who also recruits poor African-American students. "I'm not sure [poor and working-class] white students are encouraged to aim high."
Ms. Byrd, who works at the admissions office several days after class, agrees. "Word on the street" if you come from an area like hers, she says, "is you don't apply to Duke."
Ms. Byrd's hometown is Newland, N.C., a two-stoplight town surrounded by rolling hills that's 45 minutes from the nearest movie theater. She grew up in a house designed and built by her parents: Surrounded by trees and built one story above ground, her parents call it "Byrd's Nest." Ms. Byrd's mother attended junior college for a year before dropping out to marry her husband, Eddie.
The couple moved here in 1972 to run a Sears catalog store. They sold the store in 1992. Carol Byrd later became a teacher's aide, making $15,000 a year. Her husband became the middle-school janitor.
Meanwhile, their daughter Julie excelled in school. At 14, she applied and was accepted to a specialized public high school for gifted students located in Durham, Duke's hometown, a 3 1/2-hour drive away.
Ms. Byrd believes that had she stayed in Newland, she wouldn't have gotten into Duke -- or even applied. The college hasn't sent a catalog to her hometown high school despite several requests, according to the school's guidance counselor, Pat Tutterow. Mr. Guttentag, the Duke admissions director, says the college typically sends catalogs to any high school that asks.
Even with scholarship and financial aid, Duke's tuition bill shocked the Byrds. "I said to myself, 'I got to get back into something solid,' " Mr. Byrd says. Soon after turning 60, he started work as a guard at a medium-security prison, starting at $21,000 a year.
The Byrds believe they sent their daughter to Duke with solid values and they try to help her out financially when they can. "I don't think of ourselves as poor," says Ms. Byrd's mother. "But we can't do for her what some parents do."
On the eve of spring break, Ms. Byrd, captain of the school's Ultimate Frisbee team, is debating whether she can afford an extra $75 to drive with her team to Florida for an intercollegiate tournament. Playing Ultimate Frisbee -- a fast-paced game with elements of lacrosse and soccer -- is Ms. Byrd's passion. While traveling, the team strives to save money by cramming six or seven girls in a motel room and eating at Taco Bell or all-you-can-eat restaurants. But students have to shoulder some of the expenses themselves.
Although several teammates have offered to lend Ms. Byrd money to pay for the trip, she resists, she says, because she already owes them money for previous trips. When spring break comes, the team boards their van without their captain.
"I feel like I have two groups of friends -- friends whose spending money is all their own and whenever we go out we go really cheap, and friends who get a monthly allowance from their parents and their credit-card bill goes right to their parents," says Amy Faulring, a sophomore friend of Ms. Byrd's on the Frisbee team. Ms. Faulring doesn't receive a monthly allowance from her parents but says they are always able to help her out when she runs short of cash. And they'll be supporting her this summer when she works in an unpaid internship in Atlanta, learning how to do grass-roots organizing among poor people.
Ms. Byrd, a biology major with a 3.2 average, wants to get a summer internship at a research laboratory. But she needs to find one that will both pay her and cover her food and housing costs.
She's learned to be resourceful. At the first class meeting of a half-credit ballroom-dancing class this semester, the instructor told students to bring a pair of flat, hard-soled shoes. Ms. Byrd didn't own a pair. Brandishing a roll of silver duct tape, she dug out some silver sandals and fashioned a back strap to hold them in place.
"I take advantage of what I've got, and try not to dwell on what I don't have," Ms. Byrd says. "I find that makes me a much happier person."
'A Leveling Proposition'
One place where Ms. Byrd does find students of similar backgrounds is the student Presbyterian church group that meets twice a week in the basement of Duke's large gothic church.
Between classes, Ms. Byrd stops by, drops $1.50 in a wicker basket to cover the cost of the spaghetti and salad lunch and sits down with a dozen students. Like Ms. Byrd, several students here come from rural backgrounds and are the first in their families to go to college. They commiserate over the vagaries of financial aid and joke about the number of BMWs in student parking lots.
Cheryl Henry, a campus minister advising the group, listens sympathetically. She herself is the daughter of a telephone lineman who was the first in her family to go to college. She tells the students not to limit their options because they don't have as much money as their classmates.
But she understands. "When I went to college, it was a leveling proposition," says Rev. Henry, who graduated from a small, private Tennessee college in 1983. "Everyone ate in the cafeteria. Everyone was trying to scrimp and save, even the richest. But that's not true here."
Duke, says Rev. Henry, "can make you feel poorer than you are."
Write to Jonathan Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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