Last week’s Board of Trustees meeting included a presentation on diversity at Penn. It included sobering facts about the achievement gaps between socioeconomic groups and the ways Penn has responded.
According to Graduate School of Education professor Laura Perna, low-income students are increasingly shifting from four-year institutions to two-year colleges or no postsecondary education at all.
Penn has made significant strides in closing this achievement gap. Six-year graduation rates between high- and medium-need students and low-need students are now virtually identical, according to Vice Provost for Education Andrew Binns. The average financial aid award for the class entering in fall 2011 was $40,768.
Despite progress that has been reported, however, the University must not become complacent. There is still work to be done, and the University must constantly revise its programs to attract the best and brightest, regardless of background.
Diversity is a noble goal, but not all diversity is created equal. Penn must be cognizant in developing programs — like its increased involvement with the Knowledge is Power Program and its partnership with nonprofit organizations Questbridge and the Posse Foundation— that respond to the needs of qualified students who might not otherwise consider Penn.
In addition, it must ensure that the diversity it promotes reflects a true variety of experiences. Not all diversity is created equal. To be effective, any efforts at geographic, racial and socioeconomic diversity must be with efforts at cultural diversity.
Finally, the process for measuring progress must be transparent and self-critical. Making comprehensive raw data available to the public would be a valuable step forward.
How we define diversity is inextricably tied to promoting the goal and progress must not hold us back.