Is it better to get into Penn and exhaust every option to afford it, or is it better to simply get rejected because of your inability to pay? This is a serious question that many international students ask themselves when applying to Penn.
Unlike its Ivy League peers such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, Penn’s need-blind admissions policy only applies to citizens and permanent residents of the United States, Canada and Mexico. All other applicants must either be able to pay full-price tuition or compete for the $6 million in financial aid available for the entire international applicant pool. This has put significant financial burdens on some international students who can’t afford Penn on their own.
“Penn will not admit a financial aid candidate for whom we cannot provide aid,” the Penn Admissions website says. “As a result, some candidates we would otherwise want to admit will be turned away.” Thus, many international applicants who really want to go to Penn but cannot afford it, apply to Penn without financial aid and seek assistance elsewhere.
Outside scholarships ... for a price
College senior Julia Shin did not want to take the chance of applying to Penn as a financial aid student. “Generally, if you have a Korean passport, you don’t receive financial aid from Penn,” she said.
Each year, the South Korean Kwanjeong Educational Foundation provides a limited number of scholarships for Korean students to attend universities abroad. In 2011, Shin was one of six undergraduate students to receive the scholarship.
“I probably wouldn’t come to Penn without my scholarship,” she said. “The only requirements are that I should never get a C in my transcripts and my GPA is above 3.5.” She added that the scholarship allows her to study anything other than law, pre-med or business.
While Shin’s scholarship requirements may seem strict, there are other scholarships that place more demands on students.
College sophomore Dayana Mustak receives a scholarship from the Malaysian government. After speaking with older Penn students from Malaysia, she decided it was in her best interest to apply to Penn without financial aid.
“I took a risk and essentially applied without financial aid to increase my chances of getting in to Penn,” Mustak said. “I knew that once I got into Penn, I would have a higher chance of getting financial aid from my government.”
Mustak’s scholarship required her to sign a contract with the Malaysian government, where she agreed to pursue a psychology major at Penn and then go back to Malaysia to work after graduation.
“Most of us [receiving scholarships] have to work for the government or sometimes the company that funded us,” she said. “I was lucky to get sponsorship for the course of study I wanted, but I don’t have the liberty to change my major.”
The few international students who are fortunate enough to get financial aid from Penn feel much less pressure than students like Shin and Mustak.
Kim-Anh Ngoc Dam is a College and Wharton sophomore from Vietnam receiving financial aid. She is grateful for the financial assistance because it both relieves her family in terms of economic pressure and gives her more freedom in pursuing her academic path.
“I feel like it gives me more security in choosing what I want to do in college,” Dam said. “If I applied for a government scholarship from my own country, I would most probably not have as many choices in my career when I come back to work for them.”
The lack of financial assistance from Penn adds additional pressure on international students in their daily lives. For example, in order to minimize their family’s financial pressure, some international students choose to stay on campus over school breaks. The currency exchange rate is another source of concern for some international students.
“For every dollar [I spend], it’s three to four times more in my currency,” Mustak said.
International students ‘must be prepared to pay for four years’
College senior Angel Garcia de la Garza and Engineering and College junior Alexandre Kleis are the past and current president of the Assembly of International Students, respectively. The pair said that their group has been working to increase financial assistance for international students for more than five years.
“In reality, the number of international students who receive financial aid from Penn is very very small,” Kleis said.
According to Kleis and Garza, changes in a family’s financial situation is one of the important reasons why international students have a significantly lower four year graduation rate than domestic students at Penn. Unlike domestic students, international students are usually not able to apply for financial aid once they are already at Penn.
“Due to limited funding, Penn rarely offers financial assistance to international students whose families’ financial situations change,” Marlene Bruno, the Director of Communications for Student Financial Services, said in an email. “SFS stresses to international applicants at the outset that they must be prepared to pay for four years of education if they are not applying for financial aid.”
The University’s Director of Financial Aid, Joel Carstens, offered a different explanation.
“Penn carefully considers all financial changes outlined by the family, as each family situation is unique. However, there are no guarantees of aid eligibility,” Carstens said in an email. “In some cases, after Penn has completed its thorough review, it is determined that sufficient family resources exist to pay the full cost of Penn’s education.”
Kleis and Garza also mentioned that Penn has not provided a direct channel for international alumni donations until this March, when the school administrators added a section on Penn’s donation website that specifically addresses the needs of international students.
The Giving to Penn website now allows donors who wish to support undergraduate scholarships to choose between two funds: the General Endowment Scholarship fund for all students or the Ambrose C. Davis Memorial Scholarship for international students.
All of the students interviewed for this article believe that Penn should provide more financial support for international undergraduate students.
“Penn is trying to increase [its] international presence [and] it should also increase funds for international students,” Garza said. “A lot of Ivy League schools are doing it, Penn shouldn’t fall behind.”
Shin agrees, adding that many of her friends did not apply to Penn and instead chose fully need-blind schools such as Dartmouth. She added that her friends were more comfortable going to schools that supported them financially.
“Penn always says that it is very committed to diversity and while we are getting representation from a lot of different countries, we’re not sure if we’re getting representation from different socioeconomic statuses ... because of the lack of international student financial aid,” Shin said. “If the University really values diverse backgrounds, they should change the existing policies, whether through adding more scholarships or [becoming] need-blind.”
It remains uncertain whether changes will be made to the policy any time soon. “I am not aware of any changes to the international student financial aid policy in the near future,” Bruno said.
Carstens added a more positive note to Bruno’s statement.
“Penn aspires to have need-blind admissions for all traditional undergraduate students,” he said. “Penn believes that through continued, generous undergraduate aid program support from alumni and friends of the University, this aspiration will be achieved in the future.”
But for the time being, Shin feels that the current policy puts international students who can’t afford Penn in a pickle.
“If you get into Penn ... there are really not that many solutions,” she said. “You know Penn can’t give you money and you need to find it somewhere else.”
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