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In light of recent discussions about the economic diversity of Penn’s student body, some members of the University community are looking to further the conversation by creating a formal group.

College junior Taylor Hawes, a Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, is currently involved in the planning stages of establishing a student group that would serve as a forum for discussion on the representation of different socioeconomic classes at Penn.

Though Hawes said the group’s formation has not yet been made official, she plans to work over winter break to register it with the Office of Students Affairs. She hopes that the group — which currently remains unnamed — will launch by March.

“Right now, there is an unwillingness to approach the issue because people don’t think it’s polite or it’s too personal,” Hawes said. Economic diversity “is not something we should be afraid to talk about.”

Hawes’ decision to look into the prospect of starting a new student group comes at a time when economic diversity and income disparity within Penn’s student population has generated debate.

In September, English professor Peter Conn wrote a column in the Penn Almanac in which he criticized the University’s failure to enroll more low-income students.

Conn’s column referenced a set of data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education which showed that, for the 2008-09 academic year, Penn’s proportion of low-income students ranked 47th out of the top 50 schools with the largest endowments in the nation.

“We should not be included among the least economically diverse universities in the nation,” he wrote. “Whatever the difficulty of this task, ‘We’re number 47’ won’t do.”

The column prompted a panel discussion in late November in which various students and administrators — including Dean of Admissions Eric Furda — offered competing views on the job Penn is doing.
While the panel attracted more than 100 attendees, it did not mark the first time that the Penn community has expressed an interest in the issue of economic diversity.

The Money Dialogues — an organization that began through the Greenfield Intercultural Center — has been working since last semester to “create a safe space for all economic backgrounds to talk about money,” said Wharton junior Sasha Lagombra, who is a member of the group.

She added that the Money Dialogues exists to provide a forum for discussion on how money and income status affect the student experience at Penn.

Though the group has been meeting for the last few months, it is still “in the development phase,” Lagombra said.

“Ultimately, I think Penn has a disparity of these [low-income] students,” Hawes said.

Although Penn’s need-blind admissions process means that prospective students will not be judged based on their financial status, this process has the potential to increase or decrease the economic diversity in each incoming class, according to Furda.

The Admissions Office can look at the context of an application and “infer the student’s socioeconomic class,” Furda said.

The University’s recruitment process for potential applicants targets schools and regions “[from] where students may not typically apply to Penn,” he added.

Hawes said she hopes her new group will encourage more students from underrepresented areas to realize that Penn is an option for them, as well.

She added that she would like to reach out to students “from the lower economic end of the spectrum in the younger grades, like elementary and middle school students and introduce them to schools like Penn.”

“When we talk about diversity at Penn, it’s easier for us to talk about things such as race, sexual orientation and diversity in that manner, but class and economic diversity is a little more difficult to talk about,” Lagombra said.

College freshman Sean Massa, who is a member of Money Dialogues, said he likes the group because it focuses on economic disparities that exist within the school.

“The main focus and goal is to get people informed about the power of money in our society and how it controls and influences how people think in a myriad of ways,” Massa said.

Before Money Dialogues, Lagombra said a formalized space where students could go to speak with each other about economic diversity did not exist.

“We all have issues or concerns regarding our [economic] class and this is a safe space to talk about it,” she said.

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