After College of Liberal and Professional Studies junior Mariano Gomes graduated high school in Bissau, the capital of his native country Guinea-Bissau, he traveled back to his village, excited to share the moment with his mother.
Since she was not able to read his diploma, Gomes explained the significance of the thin piece of paper. A smile slowly appeared on his mother’s face as she congratulated him, and Gomes can still remember her proud, happy tears.
“That had some significant impact on me, because I felt like I had to fight for a higher education diploma,” Gomes said.
However, the lack of universities in Guinea-Bissau and the country's civil war would postpone his college dreams for more than a decade. Finally, in the spring of 2013, Gomes was accepted to LPS at Penn.
For Gomes, Penn is his dream school — but certain administrative and financial aid policies in LPS have disappointed him and many other students who envisioned a more traditional undergraduate experience.
LPS students often have already faced a difficult journey just to get to Penn, but financial aid policies and curriculum constraints often present additional challenges upon arrival.
Designed for non-traditional students
LPS began in 1882 as the College of General Studies, which offered courses for Philadelphia teachers.
As the Ivy League’s oldest continuing education program, LPS has a long history of targeting non-traditional college students. Unlike the regular undergraduate, LPS students are often older than their counterparts and work while taking classes.
Executive Director of LPS David Bieber said that the program was started with the non-traditional student in mind — one that works while taking classes at night as a part-time student. However, the composition of students in LPS has changed over time. Currently, approximately 53 percent of the 360 LPS students are full-time. Although these statistics vary year to year, LPS Director of BA and BFA Programs Kathy Urban said that across the past decade, there has been a general trend in the increase of full-time students.
LPS senior Casey Bridgeford also pointed out the changing nature of the school.
“The program is definitely built for a specific type of student that works during the day and takes classes at night,” Bridgeford said. “The only problem with that is was probably true for 1984 and 1996 — but that is absolutely not true for 2016.”
Student Registration and Financial Services Director of Communications Karen Hamilton also noted that certain policies, like the exclusion of LPS students from Penn’s no-loan financial aid policy for undergraduates, was founded on this image of a non-traditional student.
“Most people I know want a more traditional full-time experience,” Bridgeford said. “They come in expecting to make that transition only to find out that based on financial aid and administrative policies, the program was built for a person that wants to take two classes a semester and stay in school for six years.”
Guinea-Bissau to Penn
“In Guinea, if you didn’t have someone in the government close to you — a close friend or family — you couldn’t get a scholarship” - Mariano Gomes
Growing up in Guinea-Bissau, Gomes always understood the value of education. Until he was 11, he lived in a small village where schooling was often informal and students sat on the floor because there were no desks.
He described his native country as “filled with a cycle of poverty and corruption with no government ever actually finishing the five-year term in office.”
Statistics back up Gomes' assessment. According to the 2015 Human Development Report, Guinea-Bissau’s Human Development Index is 0.420 — which ranks the country as 178 out of 188 countries and territories. The mean years of schooling for an average person is 2.8 years.
“Considering all this, you can just understand how messy things are in the country,” Gomes said.
Since Gomes' father passed away when Gomes was young, Gomes' mother was forced to raise him and his brother alone. When he was 11, he left his village to go to school in the capitol of Bissau.
“Everything was kind of late about my schooling — primary school was late, high school was late [and] college is also late,” Gomes said, chuckling.
After he graduated high school, Gomes desperately wanted to go to university, but at the time, Guinea-Bissau did not offer any institutions easily accessible within the country.
“In Guinea, if you didn’t have someone in the government close to you — a close friend or family — you couldn’t get a scholarship,” Gomes said.
Instead of going to university, he became active in his home community, helping other students go to school and receive an education. When civil war broke out in 1998 in Guinea-Bissau, however, Gomes was forced to flee to Cape Verde as a refugee.
He lived there until 2006, becoming active in local politics and advocating for other Guinean refugees in the country. In 2008, Gomes returned to Guinea-Bissau to work on an education project and soon after came to the United States.
Even after the political turmoil in his country, Gomes had not given up hope that he would one day be able to enroll in college. For him, education was no longer simply “an obsession but an obligation.”
Finally, in 2009, Gomes enrolled in Bristol Community College — he remained there until 2013, when he received a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship to study at Penn.
Indiana to Penn
“I have a family of six, and after I moved all the way out to Philadelphia, the words that I got from the financial aid office were, ‘Whatever it was going to be, it was not going to be a big package” - Casey Bridgeford
Gomes’ journey is reflective of the non-traditional background that many other LPS students have.
Bridgeford, who has a family of five — a wife and four children — initially never considered going to college. He started off as a hip-hop singer in Indiana, but transitioned into entrepreneurship when he opened his own marketing firm in 2005.
His business quickly took off, and Bridgeford soon had the opportunity to work on the 2008 presidential campaign and attend the Black Entertainment Television awards. However, that year was also the beginning of the 2008 recession, and his business soon folded.
Bridgeford’s business continued to bring in decreased profits, and the same day that his daughter, the family’s youngest child, was born, Bridgeford and his wife had to leave the hospital early to deal with their eviction notice.
For the next year and a half, he tirelessly looked for a job, but had trouble getting hired without a degree.
“It was almost impossible to find a job without a college degree,” Bridgeford said.
After securing a job, Bridgeford started to re-evaluate his views about college — he eventually decided that he wanted to go back to school and applied to Penn after receiving multiple emails identifying him as a non-traditional student.
Financial aid policies at Penn
For many LPS students, Penn is their dream institution and a second chance at getting a college education. However, the financial aid policies governing LPS, distinct from those governing a traditional undergraduate, often limit students’ experiences.
Along with those in the Accelerated Program in the School of Nursing, LPS students are considered non-traditional undergraduates and as such are not included in Penn’s no-loan, all-grant financial aid program.
LPS students also receive their financial aid from the budget of their home school, unlike traditional undergraduates who receive funds from a general financial aid pool.
SRFS lists four financing and payment options for LPS students on its website: loans, direct loans, direct PLUS loans and the Penn monthly budget plan. Around 60 percent of LPS students take out these loans, but for some students, it is still not enough.
“My financial aid package is really not big enough and sometimes it is a struggle to keep up with paying rent and taking care of my family while taking out all these loans,” Bridgeford said.
Bieber said that the program and SRFS do their best to make Penn affordable for LPS students. Currently, approximately 170 out of the 190 full-time students received institutional grants from Penn — 90 percent — in comparison to the 46 percent of traditional undergraduates that receive financial aid.
Urban also said that housing and dining allowances are included in all LPS financial aid packages for both part-time and full-time LPS students. LPS students are only asked to pay per-course tuition at roughly half the rate of traditional undergraduates.
SRFS Director of Service and Delivery BethAnn Cairns said that LPS students do not fall under the all-grant policy because the initiative was originally intended to attract “talented and diverse students” and make Penn more marketable to them. These goals align more strongly with traditional undergraduates — who face a highly competitive application process and must often choose between many selective universities — than LPS students.
Gomes said that although Brown and Cornell gave him full-tuition scholarships based on his financial need, he elected to come to Penn because he liked the school and received funding from his outside scholarship.
However, student concerns about financial aid extend beyond the no-loan policy.
Some noted that they received their aid packages from Penn much later than at other institutions.
Urban said that delayed tuition packages could be a result of late tuition reduction requests or other late forms. Financial aid also cannot be finalized until after the add/drop period due to switches in course load.
The process for receiving financial aid is very different between LPS students and traditional undergraduates. While traditional undergraduates receive their financial aid packages along with their Penn acceptance, LPS students only receive them on a rolling basis starting in May.
Bridgeford had a particularly difficult time with SRFS.
“There was an extensive delay that lasted all through the summer,” he said. “There was a preliminary estimate given at the beginning of the summer but I was assured that those numbers would change.”
Meanwhile, other schools gave him his financial aid package almost immediately upon his acceptance. Bridgeford said that his interaction with SRFS was probably the most stressful part of his transition to Penn.
“I have a family of six, and after I moved all the way out to Philadelphia, the words that I got from the financial aid office were, ‘Whatever it was going to be, it was not going to be a big package,’” he said.
At one point, his specific financial aid advisor even questioned why Bridgeford was coming to Penn — “He said, ‘Why are you even trying to come here? It doesn’t make sense that you would try to come here.’”
Bridgeford only received his financial aid package near the end of August, around the time that the semester started.
However, Cairns said that SRFS was working to improve its efficiency and that they had made great strides in the last couple of years.
“We are getting better at processing those awards and getting them out, and we understand that it is necessary for students to have all the facts at their fingertips,” she said.
Urban said that LPS works with individual students to potentially issue an earlier refund if they need a financial aid package more immediately.
For LPS students, financial aid concerns directly impact their academic experience at Penn. While traditional undergraduates can take courses in any school without tuition increases as a result of Penn’s "One University" policy, LPS students do not have this similar freedom.
LPS students must pay full tuition for any classes not designated as an LPS class — generally taught at night — and courses outside of their major or those not covered by tuition reduction requests. This effectively prevents students with financial concerns from taking Wharton or Engineering classes.Other schools such as Brown also offer programs similar to LPS. Brown’s Resumed Undergraduate Education program also admits non-traditional undergraduate students. However, students can take the same courses as traditional Brown undergraduates and are not limited based on policy.
Gomes, who applied to RUE at Brown, said that this freedom was an appealing factor. However, he ultimately chose Penn because “he fell in love with the campus.”
“Here at Penn, until you decide your major, you cannot take any classes you want,” Gomes said. “Even if you’re just exploring the major and you are not sure yet, there is very little freedom financially.”
Gomes also said that he is only allowed to take four credits a semester and that if he wants to take more, he has to pay the full course tuition out of his pocket.
He has even compiled a list of classes that he would like to take at Penn before he graduates. Most of them are outside of his major and are not offered as LPS courses.
“I hope that I can check at least a few courses off my list before I graduate,” Gomes said. “They are from a diverse set of departments, and every semester I try to see if one of them is offered as an LPS class so I can take it.”
As an aspiring entrepreneur with his own startup, OnCast Media, Bridgeford also finds these policies very limiting. Despite his interest in business, he has not been able to take Wharton courses because of financial constraints.
“Some jobs ask you to tie your course work in with your entrepreneurial pursuits, and I can’t do that because I literally haven’t taken one business course and have been prevented from it financially,” Bridgeford said.
Bridgeford believes that LPS’s strict academic limitations also speak to a lack of support for entrepreneurship and career searches.
“If you have other passions, you’re kind of left on your own to figure out how to integrate that with your academic journey in LPS.”
Many LPS students are coming back to school because they have lived for several years in poverty and are looking to change the trajectory of their life, Bridgeford said, but they are being locked out of taking courses that allow them a higher earning potential.
“This means that many of them, even if they got an Ivy League degree, might end up going right back to the same life of struggling financially,” he said.
Bridgeford also added that these academic constraints often isolate LPS students from the career search process that traditional undergraduates go through at Penn.
“When I go to career advising, I’m usually the first one of my type they’ve seen,” Bridgeford said. “They’re like, we don’t have many non-traditional students coming over here and asking for help.”
Bieber said that there are no specific career fairs for LPS students on campus, but that the department is working with employers to provide other options for students.
“One thing we have found when working with employers is that employers are very interested in adult students,” Urban said. “In some ways, we are trying to create a different pathway for them because it may not be the traditional on-campus recruiting option.”
The social divide
Financial aid policies and academic policies are not the only factors in LPS students’ non-traditional undergraduate experience.
Some of them also note that there is a social barrier between LPS students and the traditional undergraduate.
“When you’re surrounded by all these 18- and 19-year-old students, an LPS student can really stick out,” Bridgeford said.
Bridgeford said that he has really taken the initiative to get involved in different clubs at Penn. Other LPS students, however, are not as involved in undergraduate campus life.
Gomes said that he has not joined any traditional undergraduate clubs, but he is part of the LPS Student Associate because he feels that he can connect with a community of students with more similar experiences to him.
Despite the social, financial and academic constraints in LPS, however, most students believe that the benefits of the program outweigh the costs.
“I feel like despite all the difficulties, I’ve definitely adjusted,” Gomes said. “I’m a Quaker.”