Pornography to pay for college?

The Internet and mainstream media have been abuzz the last couple of weeks with the story of a first-year student at Duke University who is financing her education by working as an actress in pornographic movies. A Google search today for the terms “duke university porn star tuition” returned 179,000 results. The story evidently surfaced when a fellow student at Duke was watching a video and recognized the woman as someone in one of his classes.

One of the questions framed in much of the media reporting was why a woman would have to resort to being a pornographic film actress to pay for college. In other words, what does this say about the state of tuition prices and financial aid if this young woman felt this was her only option to be able to afford the $60,000 plus price at Duke? As you read more into her story, which I admittedly have done, I would caution observers against drawing too many inferences from the choices she has made.

I’ve written numerous times, both in my scholarly research as well as in this blog, about the role that financial aid plays in promoting college access, particularly for students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education (you can see a couple of blog posts here and here; you can find my scholarly publications and op-eds on my publications page). There is no question that choosing to act in pornographic films to fund one’s education is a novel choice; most college students who work to help fund their education choose more typical jobs, such as work-study jobs on campus or working at a coffee shop. While I am sure this young woman is not the first person to have chosen her selected path, she is apparently the one who has gotten the most publicity for doing so.

So is her choice a dire commentary on the state of college affordability in America today? I do not believe her decision to act in pornographic films in order to finance her Duke education – and from all reports, this was a very conscious choice on her part, not something she was coerced into or fell into because she had no other options – is a barometer of what the future may hold for other young women (or men) who face an uphill battle in financing their postsecondary education.

This Duke student has given a number of interviews, where she has tried to explain her decision. First of all, she is very open that she sees nothing wrong with and has no shame about working in the pornography industry. She is quite proud of her choice and her work, and in fact, in a quite articulate statement she contrasted her decision with the kind of work and salary she earned earlier in her life as a waitress. Putting aside one’s own moral values regarding pornography, it is hard to argue with her logic. The Duke student newspaper story in which she was quoted says that pornography industry observers indicate that an actress can make up to $1,000 or even more for shooting one scene. The Duke student reports that she flies to the Los Angeles area in between classes, shoots a number of scenes, and then comes back to her classes.

But is her story truly indicative of the options available to students to finance their educations today? The answer is, “no.” This young woman is clearly an extreme outlier, and has received so much publicity because of her decision to become a pornographic film actress. If she had instead chosen a highly-paid modeling career, it’s likely nobody would have heard of her.

One telling part of this woman’s story is that she admits that she passed up better financial aid offers at other universities in order to attend her first choice, Duke:

“I was offered scholarships at a lot of places. I was offered full tuition at Vanderbilt, for example, and was accepted into USC, Wellesley, Barnard, Pepperdine, some others. But I visited Duke last year on Blue Devil Days [Duke’s programmed weekend for admitted freshmen], and I remember walking into the Duke Chapel — I’m a very spiritual person — and just feeling an energy that told me, ‘This is the place you need to be.’ And I felt something in the chapel in that moment that told me that I needed to be here and go to Duke and it was something that would be an amazing experience for me.”

She decided she wanted to attend Duke, even though it was going to cost her more money than her other choices. She passed up a full tuition scholarship at Vanderbilt (ranked #17 among national universities by U.S. News & World Report) in order to attend Duke (#7 in U.S. News), where she was offered only $13,000 in grant aid. She made the decision to attend Duke, knowing she would have a large gap to fill between the cost of attendance and the aid that was offered. And she chose to enter the pornography industry to do so.

A telling story of the state of college affordability in the nation? Not at all. It is simply the story of the choices made by one young woman, and we should not attach any importance to what she has done.

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