Editorial | Impoverished at Penn, part one: the institutional issue

Socioeconomic diversity at Penn is no more than an empty promise on paper

· December 10, 2013, 6:01 pm   ·  Updated December 11, 2013, 1:02 am

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This is one part of a two-part editorial series on wealth and culture at Penn. (Part two.)

One of the first websites most prospective Penn students and their parents visit upon deciding to apply is the financial aid website. There, while images of thrilled admitted Penn students scroll across the top of the page, Penn brags that its generous aid makes “the extraordinary [socioeconomic] diversity of our community” possible.

But we’re not so sure that “extraordinary diversity” is a fitting term.

A University survey of the Class of 2012 found that only 3 percent identified themselves as coming from a “low income or poor” social class. On the other hand, 40 percent of students estimated that their parents make over $200,000 a year. To put that into perspective, only 4 percent of U.S. households make above $200,000.

The median income bracket for Penn students is between $150,000 and $175,000. The median income across U.S. households is $50,000. Just 12 percent of Penn students estimate that they come from a household making under that figure — less than the 13 percent who would estimate that their parents make over $450,000. The U.S. Census stat sheet doesn’t even go that high. While a 1 percent difference may seem insignificant, the fact that they’re comparable at all is astounding.

These numbers are not anomalous to the Class of 2012. Surveys done of the incoming freshman class of 2010 and the entire student body in 2011 tell similar stories: In actuality, Penn’s student body is far from socioeconomically diverse.

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The stats may seem surprising given Penn’s reputation for generous financial aid. Further research, however, reveals Data Set.html that only 50 percent of the freshman class of 2012 applied for financial aid in the first place — making the University’s full-need-met policy significantly less impressive.

There are numerous steps the University can take in order to increase the number of applicants from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds.

The University should make more of an effort to encourage greater numbers of talented students from schools in historically low-income or underrepresented locations to apply. We understand that recruiting requires a significant amount of resources. However, Penn regularly sends alumni or admissions reps to Harvard-Westlake, Phillips Andover and other traditionally well-represented private schools.

Penn should reallocate resources from these schools to those where bright students may not have guidance counselors or an extensive alumni network to recommend colleges, where students may need convincing that Penn is worth the $75 application fee.

After all, the numbers above are unlikely to convince them.

Furthermore, Penn’s legacy student population is well above the norm. Fifteen percent of students from the senior survey indicated that one or both of their parents attended Penn, compared to 10 percent for a comparison group that included Brown, Cornell and Yale universities.

We’re sure that many of these legacy admits were fully deserving of admission. However, it’s also true that legacy admissions are oftentimes just a business move to make alumni — read: potential donors — happy.

The fact that a student’s parents attended Penn should be less of a factor in admissions — it’s certainly not a guarantee that the student himself deserves to attend Penn more than other equally qualified applicants.

Penn also has a fairly large international population and almost no socioeconomic diversity among it — admission is need-aware for international students. Considering that the University raised 4.3 billion dollars during its Making History campaign and Amy Gutmann is making it shine all across the globe, we think Penn can afford to spend a little more on financial aid, especially since only 8.5 percent of Making History funds went to undergraduate aid.

Yes, Penn’s lack of socioeconomic diversity is hardly against the norm across the U.S. higher education system, a market that caters heavily to those from well-off backgrounds. Similar qualms have been raised at other elite universities. However, Penn has always prided itself on being at the forefront of promoting diversity in all forms. Perhaps it’s time to do more than broadcast that on its website.

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