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Students, faculty and administrators are preparing for a panel discussion Tuesday evening on economic diversity at Penn.

The panel was prompted by a series of opinion pieces that appeared in the Penn Almanac earlier this semester.

In late September, English professor Peter Conn wrote a column in the Almanac in which he expressed displeasure over the job that both Penn and a number of its peer institutions have done in bringing low-income students to campus.

In the piece, Conn referenced a Chronicle of Higher Education list that ranked colleges based on how many low-income students are represented. Penn placed 47th out of the top 50 colleges and universities with the largest endowments in the nation.

Just 8.2 percent of Penn undergraduates received a Pell Grant in the 2008-09 academic year, the time period in which the data was based.

Graduate School of Education professor Laura Perna, who will moderate the discussion today, explained that Pell Grant representation is widely regarded as “the most appropriate way to gauge how well an institution is fulfilling its broader goals of access and opportunity.”

Conn, who will participate in the panel, wrote in the column, “Given our eastern and urban location, along with our resources, Penn should be doing better. We should not be included among the least economically diverse universities in the nation … Whatever the difficulty of this task, ‘We’re number 47’ won’t do.”

Conn’s piece prompted Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid Bill Schilling to write a response in the Almanac. In their column, Furda and Schilling pointed out that the Chronicle’s data had taken into account the entire undergraduate population at Penn, which includes international students and those in non-traditional programs within the College of Liberal and Professional Studies.

Both international students and many LPS students, Schilling explained, are not eligible for Pell Grants, “so we think there is other data that would more realistically reflect the situation at Penn.”

Schilling said the number of low-income students at Penn — when focusing on traditional, domestic undergraduates who are eligible to apply for a Pell Grant — rose from 10.6 percent in 2008-09 to 15.6 percent in 2010-11.

“We think it is a good thing if all qualified students have the same access to various components of higher education, regardless of their economic background,” he said, adding that diversity within the student body provides for a “more robust educational experience.”

“There’s certainly always more progress to be made [in bringing low-income students to campus], but we’re very pleased with the work we’re doing now,” Schilling said.

Furda pointed to a few recent programs — including the University’s partnership with groups like QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation, which are both scholarship programs designed to help low-income students — as signs that the issue of college access is “critically important … not only for Penn but for the nation.”

Both Furda and Schilling will participate in the discussion, which is part of Ware College House’s ongoing “Dinner with Interesting People” speaker series. It will take place at 5 p.m. in McClelland Hall on Tuesday evening. Student panelists will include Engineering and Wharton senior Tyler Ernst, the Undergraduate Assembly’s president, Wharton junior Sasha Lagombra, political chair of the United Minorities Council, and College senior Angbeen Saleem, Islamic Education co-chair of the Muslim Students Association.

Lagombra said she is pleased that the panel is taking place, since income status is “such a taboo issue at Penn.”

“If we want to talk about diversity on campus, we generally just talk about ethnic and racial diversity,” she said. “I’m glad that an event like this will start a dialogue about class at Penn.”

Ware College House Dean Utsav Schurmans, who brought the panel together, agreed.

“This is a really important discussion that needs to be had, and students need to be at the table to have it,” he said, adding that, as of Monday, 83 people had RSVP’d online to attend the panel. The event will be capped at 100.

For Conn, this evening’s discussion represents an opportunity to look at the broader state of access in higher education.

“I want the emphasis here to be on the fact that difficulties of access of lower-income students to up-market universities is both itself a tragedy and a symptom of the increasing polarization of this country between the very rich … and the growth of poverty,” he said, adding that he views Penn as “merely an occasional reference point” in the discussion.

“These elite institutions can and should be doing at least somewhat better,” he said.


Interactive: Pell grants around the Ivies

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