Financial aid proves key factor for middle-income applicants
The University works to match aid packages from peer institutions
January 23, 2012, 7:39 pm · Updated January 24, 2012, 10:41 pm·
With increased calls to examine the level of economic diversity on campus, Penn’s efforts to recruit students from across the income spectrum have been brought into question.
Last semester, an opinion column published in the Penn Almanac by English professor Peter Conn criticized the University for the job it has done in bringing low-income students to campus. Conn’s letter prompted a University-wide panel in November that focused on the role economic diversity plays at Penn.
While Penn President Amy Gutmann acknowledged that low-income representation is important at Penn, she feels that “the middle class often gets left out the discussion” about economic diversity.
“When financial aid began, there was this huge focus on low-income students … but there’s no reason to put an artificial line in the sand between low- and middle-income families,” she said.
Director of Financial Aid Bill Schilling said while Penn has no official definition for “middle income,” it can range from lower-middle-class families that make $40,000 a year to upper-middle-income families that earn more than $200,000 a year.
According to Gutmann, factors like this year’s record-high number of applicants from California, as well as the total number of students who applied for financial aid in the early decision round, show that Penn’s financial aid policies are not limited to lower-income students.
“We made a big move in going all-grant, no-loan and being able to communicate that to all families,” she said. “We’re among a small number of institutions who have done that.”
“I think [financial aid at Penn] compares very favorably with virtually all except those colleges with extremely large endowments,” Schilling added. “I would say that we certainly are on par with all but a handful of peer colleges.”
For College freshman Lizette Garcia, financial aid proved to be the key factor in her college decision.
Upon receiving a significantly better financial aid package from Cornell University — which expected her to contribute $13,000 a year, rather than $58,000 at Penn — she asked Student Financial Services to review her situation.
When Garcia received an improved package in which she would only have to pay $16,000, she chose Penn.
However, she added that she “knows [that] a lot of people probably have never heard of bringing in [another school’s] financial aid package and doing what I did.”
“I feel like the majority of students here are either going to have enough money to pay the full tuition, or they have such low income that Penn is paying everything for them,” she added. “Coming from a middle-class family, I feel like my college decision was completely based on financial aid.”
Schilling explained that while SFS does not have a formal policy of matching aid packages from peer institutions, it tries to “reduce the difference between our package and the other school’s package so the student can make the decision about where to go based on factors other than price.”
Top Colleges educational consultant Steven Goodman — who received his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education in 1989 — feels that there is “a lot more work that needs to be done” to reach out to middle-income college applicants.
“It really comes down to the use of resources in the admissions office,” he said, adding that recruiters should be making more of an effort to target high schools with prospective students who are more likely to be aid eligible.
Schilling acknowledged that Penn’s recruitment process focuses more on lower-income students because they may be first-generation college applicants who “don’t have as much information and understanding of financial aid and how it can reduce the sticker price.”
Meanwhile, students from middle-income and upper-middle-income families are more likely to be in the applicant pool in the first place, Schilling said.
Once applicants are admitted, however, SFS is committed to providing financial aid across the income spectrum in order to “put them in a position to accept their offer,” he added.