Penn community addresses campus economic diversity

Series of articles in the Penn 'Almanac' started the discussion

· November 24, 2011, 12:06 am   ·  Updated November 27, 2011, 11:42 pm

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A debate between an English professor and the dean of admissions on Penn’s economic diversity took the form of an open campus discussion Tuesday.

Undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, administrators and local residents alike filled the McClelland South Lounge for the discussion on economic diversity in higher education, hosted by Ware College House and moderated by Graduate School of Education professor Laura Perna.

The impetus for the discussion was a series of articles in the September Penn Almanac in which English professor Peter Conn argued that Penn needs to do more to attract low-income students, especially given its status as a leader in higher education. Dean of Admissions Eric Furda submitted his own article to the Almanac in response.

For a more interactive and informative discussion, Perna moderated the discussion of a panel of faculty, administrators and students. Conn elaborated on the competition between legacy students and low-income students in college admissions. “Deference to legacies competes with the effort to enroll lower-income students, virtually none of whom will be the children of alumni of these elite institutions … And the same could be said, I hasten to add, for the preferential treatment given to the children of the University faculty.”

He blamed this partly on the “pernicious influence of the U.S. News and World Report [rankings]” in which “zero points are included for economic diversity.” Conn gave two suggestions: first, “college administrators should get together and demand that USNWR include economic diversity somewhere in its algorithm,” and second, the community should “continue this discussion in a candid way.” Conn stated that “in every domain of our country, including college admissions, no one speaks for the poor.”

Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid William Schilling mostly focused on the projects that Penn is undertaking to encourage economic diversity and the responsibility it carries. Schilling agreed with Wharton junior Sasha Lagombra, a student panelist and political chair of the United Minorities Council, about the benefits of economic diversity. “I think that the cultural diversity and socioeconomic diversity are critical to enhancing the education for all Penn students,” Schilling said.

When asked about the best strategies to increase economic diversity, Furda said one of the goals of the University at the moment is identifying these students, studying their college search patterns and getting to the “grassroots level” using community-based organizations and programs like the Posse Foundation and QuestBridge. Another goal is “following up with community colleges,” Furda said.

One of the challenges and goals of the University is “getting the word [out] about affordability,” Schilling said. “We know that first-generation college students are not getting the kind of information and support from parents that students in the upper-middle income groups see … We need to do what we can to get them to understand that net price is different from sticker price.”

Schilling also suggested increasing efforts to make more resources available for low-income students. “Getting the students in is an important piece, but getting them through is just as important.”

Student panelists Lagombra and College senior Angbeen Saleem, Islamic Education co-chair of the Muslim Students Association, added their own personal experiences to the argument. Lagombra attested to the difficulties of having a work-study job and coming to Penn feeling like she was behind the curve because she didn’t have the same access to tutoring and support before college. “We’re encouraged to become leaders … but it’s even harder because we do have to balance a job and we have to balance that economic and financial stress that many students don’t experience until they graduate.”

Students appreciated the welcoming environment of the talk and the opportunity to continue this discussion over dinner with faculty and peers after the panel talk.

Engineering freshman David Kim said that “you can’t really see” the issue of economic diversity. “You can’t really tell if someone’s from a low background but … it helps us grow if there’s more diversity … You learn from other people who have had trouble growing up with economic issues.”

Others wished for more discussion and more publicity for the event. “It’s such a difficult topic that an hour isn’t enough to get into some of the more difficult issues,” College and Wharton sophomore Lawrence Yen said.

College sophomore Afuah Frimpong agreed. “I think that it was really successful … but given that it’s Thanksgiving break and a lot of students are traveling, it would have been nicer if we had a larger population come in,” she said. “This is something that they would benefit from and something that would help the Penn community.”

This article has been updated to accurately reflect the spelling of Wharton junior Sasha Lagombra’s last name.

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