If there is one thing that has become clear from a recent campus discussion, it is the consensus that economic diversity is beneficial to a university.
In the Penn Almanac earlier this semester and during a panel event last week, English professor Peter Conn debated Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid Bill Schilling over Penn’s efforts to attract students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. But while their views on the success of Penn’s current initiatives differed, all three individuals agreed on the underlying value of economic diversity and the need for Penn to continue taking a proactive approach in addressing the issue.
An economically diverse student body has significant benefits for undergraduate education. The college years are the time and the university campus is the place at which students develop their personal ideologies and outlooks. Penn provides a unique opportunity for people from many different backgrounds to come together, and students often learn most from their peers. Increasing the economic diversity on campus would vary the viewpoints to which students are exposed and from which they can learn.
But recent data shows that Penn struggles to attract students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In his piece in the Almanac, Conn cited the statistic that only 8.2 percent of Penn students in the 2008-09 school year received money from federal Pell grants, ranking the University at a dismal 47th place out of the 50 wealthiest colleges in the country. This percentage was actually a decrease from 8.7 percent of students in the 2004-05 school year, meaning that economic diversity may have worsened over that time — a very discouraging finding.
Furda acknowledges Conn’s point but argues that the situation has since improved. The University has indeed taken some commendable steps to attract more financially disadvantaged students. Penn collaborates with the nonprofit organizations QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation to award full four-year scholarships to deserving students with financial need. Last year, it selected 17 QuestBridge and 11 Posse scholars to be a part of the current freshman class. And last semester, the University redesigned its financial aid brochure to help students from low-income families better navigate the college admissions process. In part for these reasons, the percentage of Penn students receiving Pell grants has increased steadily over the past few years, according to Furda.
Surely, there remains a lot of work to be done, and Penn can’t do it alone. The lack of economic diversity in elite schools presents a much bigger problem in higher education — one that has roots in troubles with the public education system as a whole and economic inequality in the nation overall. These problems are immensely complicated and require a fundamental shift in policy to solve.
Penn can’t find the solution itself, but it can definitely take the lead in improving economic diversity on its own campus. Doing so will only enrich its students’ experience and ultimately make it a stronger school.
There are, of course, sacrifices the University must make by giving this diversity precedence; every initiative it undertakes comes with an opportunity cost. But because so many people agree that economic diversity is an important goal, these sacrifices are worth making.
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