On a campus like Penn’s, where racial diversity has become a contentious and oft-discussed issue, socioeconomic diversity is a side of the debate that is less visible.
While other colleges campuses like Middlebury College are hosting forums such as Money at Midd — where students publicly stand up and announce how much their families are paying for tuition and fees — Penn students and administrators are less vocal on the issue.
According to United Minorities Council Chair and College sophomore Joyce Kim, “I think for many Penn kids, class is a lot more difficult to talk about than race or gender, especially since race and gender have become such hot button issues.”
Partly due to her role in the UMC and the classes she’s taken concerning these topics, Kim she feels comfortable discussing socioeconomic issues on campus, although that might not be the case for other students.
Although he did not provide figures for the number of students at Penn receiving partial or full financial aid, Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens said in an email, “So far in 2012-13, the average grant for financial aid recipients exceeds tuition. In addition, approximately 13 percent of 2012-13 financial aid recipients pay no tuition, fees, room or board.”
Carstens did not provide data on the number of students at Penn on student loans, but he did mention that “loans are available and many students choose to borrow at some point during their four years at Penn.”
Beyond the lack of actual figures regarding socioeconomic diversity at Penn, Kim thinks other factors also contribute to the lack of conversation on the topic.
“It’s hard because sometimes you’re not even aware of it,” Kim said, bringing up the idea of the prevalence of BYO dinners as a common social phenomenon at Penn. “Have you ever stopped to think about people who feel uncomfortable going out [because of money]?”
For Kim, talking about socioeconomic diversity is “stigmatized” on campus.
“It’s taboo in the sense that I wouldn’t feel comfortable going up to someone and asking, ‘Do you receive financial aid?’” Kim said. “But there are spaces where you can open up that conversation here at Penn, such as UMC.”
While Wharton sophomore Christian Cortes does think Penn is socioeconomically diverse, he thinks that “people of different economic backgrounds tend to cluster together a lot.”
Cortes doesn’t think talking about issues of socioeconomic diversity is “stigmatized” at Penn, but he also doesn’t think it’s talked about enough. “Although we talk about diversity a lot, [socioeconomic diversity] is not specifically talked about,” Cortes said. “It’s more talked about on a racial level.”
Student Financial Services promotes socioeconomic diversity at Penn in several ways. “Our staff participates in presentations and discussions with prospective students both on and off campus each year …. Of course, our staff can be reached by prospective families via telephone and e-mail. We are always happy to explain the financial aid process, along with the many financing options available to prospective families,” Carstens said.
According to Jamie James, executive director of U/Fused, an organization that promotes socioeconomic diversity on college campuses, people “tend to overlook socioeconomic diversity.”
“Campuses want to be diverse, but sometimes it’s just that when you think of diversity, the things that come to mind are race, disability and religion,” James said. “I think sometimes we get caught in the lie that if we can’t see it, it’s not there.”
James hopes that college administrators and students alike can open up the dialogue on issues of socioeconomic diversity. “Especially now, we’re in a troubling economy,” James said. “We have to be aware of who’s suffering right now because of the disparities of income and because college tuitions are rising.”
“Penn’s student body is now more diverse, from a socioeconomic standpoint, than perhaps at any other time in the past 30 years,” Carstens concluded. “Penn should be justifiably proud of this transition. Making a Penn education available and affordable to all qualified students, without the requirement to borrow, is invaluable.”
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