Nobody likes to talk about money. It’s a sticky, uncomfortable topic that’s seen as distasteful and gauche to discuss. But there’s a culture of wealth at Penn that can be extremely restrictive and divisive. Socially, academically and professionally, students who come from affluent families have a leg up — and that’s worth a conversation. 

In 2015, the median household income in the United States was $55,775. Penn’s tuition, excluding room and board, costs $53,534 — a bill of which 52 percent of full-time undergraduates are paying. 

Only 16.5 percent of Penn students come from families that are in the bottom 60th percentile, making less than $65,000 per year. Comparatively speaking, 18.7 percent of Penn families make over $630,000 per year, which lands them in the top 1 percent of households in the United States.    

The wealth of Penn’s student body is fact, not opinion. But how it affects the social lives of less-privileged students demands further exploration. If the objective is to make Penn a more inclusive environment, conversations regarding money and student life need to take place now.  

Before starting at Penn, I stumbled across a “Disorientation Guide” that aims to highlight pertinent issues on campus like sexual assault, racism and socio-economic inequality. David, the author of one chapter entitled “Being First Generation, Low-Income” discussed the social limitations of not coming from socio-economic privilege.   

He spoke to the all-consuming pressure to fit in and make friends as a freshman; a pressure which is blind to socio-economic diversity. New students are bombarded by invitations to events that, for many, have price tags too hefty to bear. The result: feeling isolated from the social scene. 

The unfortunate truth is that too many of Penn’s social events cater to the wealthy. Not everyone can afford to spend 20 or more dollars on a BYO or “downtowns” and formals hosted by Greek organizations. 

While fraternity parties, which are free, are a dominant part of the social scene for freshmen, actually joining a Greek organization is not. There are exorbitant dues students must pay to become members of sororities and fraternities. 

Another component of the culture of money at Penn is that a lot students come from the same states: 1,036 of the Class of 2021’s 2,457 students hail from Pennsylvania, New York, California or Florida. Many students from these places, particularly Pennsylvania and New York, attended high schools that are feeders to Penn. This network gives them a unique advantage to talk with alumni of their high schools that are upperclassmen at Penn and obtain information they otherwise couldn’t. 

Before coming to Penn, I was able to speak with a current student who had attended my high school in New York. He told me about the best places to live on campus and the social life and offered to connect me with his friends for suggestions on classes to take and clubs to join.  

The ability to connect with alumni and have large networks from one’s high school or home state is a benefit that’s specific to a few states. In the Class of 2021, 309 students come from New York, while only four are from Louisiana. 

I’m grateful to have read the Disorientation Guide before stepping foot on Penn’s campus. Without it, I might have spent my freshman year blind to the anxiety that money can instigate in college. 

What I’ve described is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to socio-economic inequality at Penn. Aside from the social life, coming from money lends itself to professional networks that make it easier to find jobs and internships too. There are innumerable ways that money influences the lives of students. 

While there are efforts on campus to combat socio-economic insecurity, more inclusive conversations need to take place surrounding these issues. The 52 percent of Penn students who aren’t on financial aid need to include themselves in these discussions too.

Our biggest problems are often the ones we don’t discuss. The unfortunate truth is that Penn students from less privileged backgrounds struggle with the culture of wealth that exists on and off campus. There is a high concentration of rich students at Penn, and the socio-economic diversity of the student body does not come close to that of the United States. How this influences campus culture and student life warrants a discussion that hasn’t completely found its place at Penn.


ISABELLA SIMONETTI is a College freshman from New York. Her email address is isim@sas.upenn.edu. “Simonetti Says So” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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