Duke University Alumni Magazine


Scholarly flock: prospects for A.B. Duke Scholarships take a break on the steps of the East Duke Building
Photo: Les Todd

hris Wilkins wasn't in Kansas anymore. The high schooler from Lawrence had landed in the Gothic Wonderland and couldn't figure out how. Sure, he'd practically aced the American History Achievement Test--790 out of a possible 800--as well as every other history exam his senior year. But being flown to Duke the first week in April to compete for a full-tuition scholarship seemed like something straight off the big screen. "I thought the only people who get that scholarship are those who win Westinghouse or write novels," he said.

The day before, high school senior Pavan Cheruvu of Tampa, Florida, was standing near a table decked with good eats. Deans, professors, and directors of what seemed like every program at Duke University wanted to shake his hand, but both hands were full. "This is the first time I've ever been treated royally before," said Cheruvu between bites of cookie and fruit.

Cheruvu could be considered one of the top mathematics students in the country, placing second his sophomore year in the Mu Alpha Theta national math competition. He had applied to Harvard and planned to compete for a full-ride scholarship to Emory, but, even if these options came through, he planned to enroll at Duke--that is, if he ended up winning The Big One. "Nobody truly expects a scholarship of this magnitude," he admitted. "Around the nation, it's considered one of the most prestigious awards for high school students."

He's talking about the Angier B. Duke Memorial Scholarship, or simply "the A.B. Duke." The award covers four years of tuition (which totals about $88,000) and a summer at Oxford University, England. Just forty-five of Duke's 13,900 applicants (about a third of one percent) receive a letter in late February naming them finalists for the award and inviting them to the final competition. No one applies for the scholarship directly; all Duke applicants are eligible. Only fifteen end up with it.

The odds are close to lottery standards. But while lotteries seem to produce a number of wrecked souls, the A.B. Duke almost always affects lives for the better. "It's a nice way to go to college," says Grant Simons '85, M.D. '90. "When you're seventeen, it's a very supportive thing to be brought in on an honorary basis and identified as someone special." Simons saw then, in 1981, what I would see eight years later: a scholarship that is more than cash and a summer overseas vacation, but one that plugs an incoming freshman into a network of Duke students and instructors who place academics at the center of their college concern. Simons recently started a cardiac electrophysiology program in Annapolis at Anne Arundel Medical Center, which helps people with rhythmic disorders of the heart. "The presence of the scholarship really affected my path," he says.

Melissa Malouf, an associate professor of the practice of English who serves as the A.B. Duke program's director, has several terms to describe what the scholarship committee looks for in recipients: "tone-setters," "citizens of the world," "public intellectuals." Finding them in the application haystack isn't easy. "The committee has not been able to articulate for itself why this particular file looks like a potential winner," she says. While at least two of this year's recipients earned perfect scores of 1600 on the SAT, others who aced the test didn't even make the finalist cut. Being a minority doesn't make one a standout. "Ethnicity is not a factor. A sense of an independent mind is a factor," she says.

Malouf pretty much stops there when listing qualities of winners. She consistently receives e-mail messages from students and parents who locate the A.B. Duke Web page and want to know the secret formula to winning. But students who try to engineer just the right balance of extracurriculars, who try to say all the right things in their interviews, and volunteer for causes simply to look impressive, won't get far anyway. "I tell them: 'Just apply to Duke. Everybody's eligible,'" says Malouf. "What we find [in scholarship winners] is people who are not like anybody else we've ever met before."

Winning the scholarship validates the hard work of high school and introduces scholars to impressive cohorts. For students already sold on Duke, the award can mean freedom--from part-time jobs, massive school loans, and career choices influenced by money concerns. Duke gets a share of the bargain, too: a cadre of undergraduates who can potentially raise the standards of leadership and academics on campus.

"Students come to Duke and other universities for a variety of reasons, not always because they are passionately committed to a life of the mind," says Seymour Mauskopf, a professor of history and director of the freshman FOCUS program who has interviewed finalists for the scholarship. (First-semester FOCUS students take courses structured around a common theme and meet regularly over dinner with participating faculty members.) "We would like to enhance that sort of commitment as much as possible."

But maintaining a merit scholarship program isn't exactly academic, as university officials will tell you. Choosing who should get the award can be agonizingly difficult. Furthermore, when the university's budget has felt a crunch over the years, directors of the program have periodically had to argue for the scholarship's survival--an argument they partly lost in 1992, when five of the then twenty annual awards were de-funded. Such fights may be a thing of the past. Last April, The Duke Endowment announced it would fully endow the tuition portion of the A.B. Duke fund. The university will continue to cover programming costs and the need-based aid for which some A.B. Duke scholars qualify. "It means that the program is forever safe," says history professor Ron Witt, who directed the A.B. Duke program from 1981 to 1986.

Of course, the whole notion of merit-based scholarships is not immune from critical questions. What can merit awards accomplish at a university that already has high standards for admitted students? Is it justifiable to offer merit awards when need-based aid is at a premium? And, if justification can be found, how in the world should students be judged?

If a hard choice of priorities is presented between merit- and need-based awards, engineering dean Earl Dowell knows on which side he'd fall. "All students we admit to Duke are meritorious, but some have greater financial resources than others," says Dowell. "If your question is, 'Do you think need-based aid is more important than non-need-based aid?' then my answer is yes."

His reason: Need-based aid ensures social and economic diversity in a student body. But Norm Christensen, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and director of the A.B. Duke program from 1987 to 1990, thinks that the university benefits from both types of aid equally. "Need-based assures the most diverse student body possible. Merit-based assures we can attract some of the best minds to this university," he says. "I don't think we're trading off one for the other."

A merit scholarship may also do something that need-based aid can't, by sending the message to high schoolers that good grades pay. "It's very clear to kids that if they strive to be good athletically, they will be rewarded," says former A.B. Duke Scholar Grant Simons. "Kids should know the same holds true for academics, which are a loftier goal."

In arguing for the merits of merit, Malouf has had to come to terms with the fact that some of the finalists come from wealthy backgrounds and would have no trouble affording the tuition price tag. Now she sees it as a price to pay for honoring achievement and academic promise. "I think these young people tend to understand that they are privileged," she says. "It doesn't necessarily have to do with money, but that some people along the way made sure they had a good education, someone is looking out for them." The scholarship also rewards some students of an independent mindset. "I know of one student who said that his parents could have paid to send him anywhere," says the program's coordinator, Betty Cowan. "But he said he didn't want his parents to pay. He wanted to do it himself."

I can identify with such sentiments. My own father spent three years working assembly-line jobs in factories to pay for his own college. How, then, could I justify asking him to pay the parents' portion of even the most generous financial aid offer? I would have instead chosen a state school, as a matter of principle. Others, I'm sure, have held the same thinking.

Angier B. Duke Memorial, Inc., was established by Benjamin N. Duke in 1925, two years after his thirty-nine-year-old son died in a Greenwich, Connecticut, boating accident. Initially the fund had a strong need-based component, providing loans as well as grants to students. Then in 1946, seeing that G.I. Bill scholarships would soon dry up, the memorial's board of directors made a decision to form the Angier B. Duke Memorial Scholarship Program and to actively recruit the top high school students in North Carolina. Alumni in six regions of the state conducted interviews "in which the candidate's personality, poise, appearance, vitality, and stability" were gauged. Thirty finalists were invited to the university for a written test, follow-up interviews, and meals at professors' homes. Six students received scholarships of $750, which covered most of the cost of attending Duke.

"Scholarship aid at that time of history was virtually non-existent as compared to now," says Duke English professor and writer Reynolds Price '55, who was awarded the scholarship in the spring of 1951. "I'm certain my parents would have found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to send me to Duke."

The scholarship evolved. More awards were added, and students from the Southeast, later the nation, and from around the globe were eventually allowed to compete. But tuition costs rose beyond the scholarship's scope. By 1981, the scholarship award amounted to just $1,000 a year for students who failed to demonstrate financial need. That year, tired of seeing the scholarship turned down at alarming rates, university officials upped the A.B. Duke's ante to full tuition, regardless of a student's finances. They made the director's job a part-time post--Ron Witt was the first in the position--and gave him funding for a weekend "bonding" retreat in the summer and activities during the academic year.

The bolstered award has succeeded at winning over students. Sam Malone of Zebulon, North Carolina, a member of the 1998 USA Today All-Academic Team, says without the scholarship, "I was going to meditate for five hours and decide whether to pay a lot of money and go to Yale or Brown, or spend no money and go to UNC-Chapel Hill," where he was accepted into the Academic Scholars Program. But he didn't care for the Greek-dominated social life of UNC. For him, the scholarship will mean pursuing "pure research" without feeling the need for a more practical course of study to pay off loans.

The A.B. Duke is just one of three merit scholarships administered by Duke. The B.N. Duke Memorial Scholarship annually goes to ten students from the Carolinas, while each year the Reggie Howard Memorial Scholarship is awarded to five African-American students. (All are due to extend to full-tuition benefits, thanks to The Duke Endowment.) Together, the scholarships attract applicants who may initially see Duke's price-tag as repugnant. "It's almost one of the most common questions you hear: 'What merit scholarships do you have?'" says Laura Sellers, Duke's senior associate director of admissions, who travels the country promoting the university. None of the schools with which Duke competes most rigorously--Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale--offer anything quite like the A.B. Duke, which is open to all applicants, even international students, regardless of financial need. "It's a nice, distinctive thing Duke offers, and it very well may bring people into our applicant pool," she says.

Once they apply, Duke would like to use the A.B. Duke to keep some of them. "When Duke goes head to head with Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford, the prestige game we don't win," notes Thomas Robisheaux, associate professor of history and director of the A.B. Duke program from 1991 to 1996. The overall matriculation rate of students admitted to Duke was 43 percent this year. But just 8 percent of the students whose list of college options included Stanford ended up picking Duke instead. The figure dropped to 5 percent when Harvard was among students' choices. "We have been successful in attracting them, not as successful in matriculating them," says Christoph Guttentag, Duke's director of undergraduate admissions. As the pool of admittants to Duke continues to have more top-college options, the percentage of students choosing Duke over the other top schools could shrink even further. The scholarship serves as one way to attack the trend.

The road to becoming an A.B. Duke scholar begins as a paper trail. Each year the admissions office doles out its applications (13,950 for the 1998-99 academic year) among seventeen regional admissions officers who apply a standard rating system as they read. The system helps identify 400 to 450 stand-outs in the categories of grades and achievements, course selection, recommendations, essays, personal qualities, extracurriculars, and standardized tests. After a meeting with Malouf in which she talks about the scholarship's aims, the admissions officers cut the number of stand-outs in half. This year 248 semi-finalist files went to the nineteen-member A.B. Duke advisory committee, made up of faculty and students, which then spent several weeks filtering out the top forty-five files.

The final stage is the interview, conducted during the April finalist weekend by two professors, two current A.B. Duke scholars, and a member of the program's advisory committee. The different interviewing groups are given free rein on questions and are not necessarily expected to articulate in concrete terms why one individual scored higher than another.

The interview and subsequent selection process was just abstract enough to scare Michael Todd, B.S.E. '92, M.S. '93, Ph.D. '96, who interviewed finalists every year as a scholar and sat on the advisory committee for three of those years. He remembers the process of that time as "frighteningly arbitrary," with some of the scholarships offered according to force of argument, not raw scores obtained in interviews or applications. "What the process ended up relying on is someone going to bat for you, and it may be arbitrary for someone to do that," says Todd. "I don't know if there's any way to do it better. I can criticize but I can't improve."

Malouf strives for consistent evaluation. She reads all semi-finalist files and sometimes asks first-time readers to look again at files they rejected. Since she became director, interviewing committees have received a list of sample questions they can ask of candidates. Of course, after the interviews, the advisory committee must confront the personal element. "Many look good on paper and not in person," says Malouf. "If we went by SAT scores, everybody would look pretty much the same."

According to Christensen, the Nicholas School dean, it's impossible for a committee of people to avoid a philosophical discussion when deciding among highly qualified students. "Various faculty and students bring different values to the table," he says. "The question becomes, how do we reconcile those different world views?"

The committee's quest is taken seriously, says Malouf. "We all want to get it right. We have people's lives in our hands, so we can't be sloppy or forgetful." That being said, she maintains the winners are easy to spot in the interviews. "Usually there is a consensus when someone leaves the room and everybody goes, 'Wow!' "

Marie Lynn Miranda, '85, assistant professor of the practice in the Nicholas School and an A.B. Duke Scholar in her own day, remembers an occasion when she argued loudly for one candidate. The student in question was interested in the social sciences, an area where high schoolers sometimes have a tough time proving aptitude. "It was apparent there was this incredible spark in him," recalls Miranda. "I said, 'Four years from now, this guy is going to be a Rhodes Scholar. I hope he spends the intervening years at Duke.' " The student, Eric Greitens '96, won the scholarship and did come to Duke. He's currently at Oxford--as a Rhodes Scholar.

Miranda may be able to pick a scholar, but their classmates may not. The reason: Most A.B. Dukes realize quickly they aren't the only good students on campus. Reluctant to be put in a position of justifying their distinction, they keep it a secret. "I met many, many people who hadn't gotten the scholarship that I thought deserved one," says Todd. "There's a slight sense of guilt." Professors confirm the observation. "The A.B. Dukes I've had are exceptional, but I've had an equal number of non-A.B. Dukes who are exceptional," says history professor Mauskopf. "I couldn't tell you right now who in my class has the scholarship."

It's a running joke among recipients that the glassed-in medallions given to incoming scholars often find their way to sock drawers. In 1986, a professor printed commemorative T-shirts for the scholars. "I found them in used clothing stores all over town," recalls Witt. "They were all 'closet A.B. Dukes.' "

That is not to say that students feel stigmatized by the scholarship. More likely it serves as a boost and a challenge. "A lot of the scholars say that the A.B. Duke 'saved me from Harvard,'" says Holly Chang, a Duke senior. "It seems absurd, but students at Harvard who were standouts in their high schools may, in a bigger pond, see themselves as merely 'average.'" For A.B. Duke scholars, says Chang, the distinction they carry into college serves as "a confidence or backing. Because we're holding this banner, we feel more motivated to do things. They expect us to be leaders." Chang was captain of her mock trial team freshman year and is now on the FOCUS advisory board.

Table manners: Trinity College of Arts and Sciences associate dean Mary Nijhout conducts a group discussion
Photo: Les Todd

Andrea Wong, a junior, agrees that "iron sharpens iron." Yet the A.B. Dukes are not a cutthroat group, as she learned during her finalist competition when she stayed up until 2 a.m. playing games with other finalists and current scholars. "I thought, 'Wow, these are awesome, intelligent people but they know how to have fun. They enjoy each other's company.'" The relaxed, supportive environment will make it easier for her to pursue her interests in the Russian language and public policy, she says.

University officials emphasize that A.B. Duke scholars "pay back" their award while they are at Duke by contributing to the overall academic atmosphere. But it would be interesting to find out if the award predicted future success. In terms of the Rhodes and other post-graduate honors, A.B. Duke scholars have done well. Since 1985, six of Duke's nine Rhodes Scholars and eleven of Duke's twenty-two Mellon Fellows in the Humanities were A.B. Dukes first. The program also claims five of the university's eight Marshall Scholars since 1984, and fourteen of thirty-three Barry Goldwater scholarships since 1989.

Will there be Oscars, Pulitzers, and Nobels in the lot? Though there are several scholars prior to the 1980s who went on to achieve notoriety (Reynolds Price '55, Anne Tyler '61, and Josephine Humphreys '67, to name three well-known authors), they were chosen before the scholarship assumed its present form. (The Class of 1985 was the first group of A.B. Dukes that was both drawn from an international pool of applicants and given full-tuition awards regardless of need.) "Our alums are still relatively young," says Malouf. "They've been out there ten years, but they haven't been out there long enough yet."

It's not too early to say the scholarship has made positive marks. Molly McCoy '89 attended a high school in Land-o-Lakes, Florida, where the dropout rate was 60 percent. Figuring she'd attend a state college, she applied to Duke on a whim and landed the A.B. Duke. All through high school, McCoy had felt pigeonholed into a future of math and science until a poetry class her sophomore year at the university. "That's where I actually learned to think," she remembers. "That whole semester was like The Wizard of Oz, going from black and white to Technicolor." Suddenly, McCoy took a broader look at the world, getting involved in women's issues, taking part in one of the first "Take Back the Night" anti-violence rallies, and helping to write the Women's Handbook. She recently completed an M.B.A. at Northwestern and plans to work for a consulting firm helping business people improve their communication skills.

Michael Todd credits the A.B. Duke scholarship even more directly with informing his career path. He's currently working for the Naval Research Center, helping to develop safer ways of transferring loads between storm-tossed ships. (The research involves developing complex algorithms to describe the chaos of ocean waves.) Without the A.B. Duke, Todd is not sure he would have earned a Ph.D., which he considers his life's calling. "I have to say the people I met [through the program] were the ones who helped me shape what I was going to do with my life," he says. "I never would have thought of graduate school if not for the scholarship."

There is some question as to whether the scholarship can maintain its prominence in an environment in which paying for a name-brand school has become easier. According to a front-page article in The New York Times last June, the nation's best-endowed colleges have shown "increased willingness to barter for the top students, regardless of income." Such a trend means that Duke is finding itself out-competed in its need-based aid proposals. "They are giving more grant than loan. They are just not calling it a merit scholarship," says Laura Sellers in the admissions office. It may also be part of the reason that ten of the twenty-five students eventually offered the scholarship this year turned it down. (Of those ten, five went to Harvard, two to Stanford, and one each to Brown, Emory, and Washington University in St. Louis.)

Another challenge for the program has been to attract the roughly twenty-five finalists who aren't offered the award. "Who is more disappointed, the team that doesn't make it into the NCAA tournament or the team that loses the championship game?" says admissions director Guttentag. Last year, four finalists enrolled despite falling short of the scholarship--and that's one of the largest numbers to date. In an effort to matriculate more finalists, this year fourteen of the runners-up were offered Presidential Research Fellowships, which provide grants totaling $10,000 over four years for student research. Only three students accepted, but university officials hope that as the fellowship develops a reputation and a clientele, it will earn a larger draw.

Shortcomings aside, one of the most lucrative merit scholarships in the college world continues to overwhelm its recipients. Cheruvu "just jumped around" when he learned he'd been selected as a winner. Back in Kansas, Wilkins awoke his father from a nap to tell him the news, that he would be seeing four years of Duke-blue skies. Those four years may pass without Wilkins' ever learning why he found himself on Duke's campus that April day. "Duke maybe saw something in me I didn't realize was there. They saw something that made them want to wager," he says. "I'd like to ask them, 'What did you see in me?'"

Larson '93, a former A.B. Duke Scholar, is a freelance writer and assistant to Reynolds Price.

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