In a widely cited piece of compelling data journalism, The New York Times last month compiled a list of the 38 American colleges and universities that enroll more students from the top one percent of the U.S. income distribution than from the bottom 60 percent combined.
The Daily Pennsylvanian was dismayed to see Penn come in No. 29 on the list, with 18.7 percent of students coming from the top 1 percent, as compared to 16.5 percent coming from the bottom 60. In our view, these figures reveal a deficiency in Penn’s student diversity that cannot afford to go unaddressed.
Maintaining a student body in which a broad range of socio-economic statuses enjoys significant representation is equally as vital to Penn’s goals as striving in other ways to ensure a diverse campus. Surely a student’s outlook and character may be as informed by the economic conditions of his upbringing as by racial or ethnic identity. As such, we believe that economic diversity stands to contribute as much to the vibrancy of our campus and the quality of our discourse as any of the other varieties that we treasure.
Much — though not all — of the burden of correcting this shortcoming lies with the administration and the Office of Admissions. That being said, Admissions already runs a number of commendable programs and initiatives aimed at boosting the number of low-income and first-generation students in each incoming class. Additionally, though far from perfect, Penn’s need-blind financial aid policy is more generous than most, particularly among comparable highly-selective institutions. These choices provide a valuable opportunity to the students they assist, and should not be overlooked. The persistence of such a dramatic imbalance, however, shows on its face that what is already being done does not suffice to close the economic representation gap.
Given the opaque nature of Penn’s “holistic” admissions process, it is difficult to know what — if any — weight is given to economic diversity when making admissions decisions. However, the fact that Penn routinely gives more than half of the spots in each incoming class to applicants from the early decision pool — which draws heavily from expensive, elite private prep schools in much greater numbers than the regular application cycle — is not a positive sign. It is our position that economic diversity should be considered of equal importance to any other type when putting together a new class.
Economic affirmative action and financial aid can only go so far, however. The underlying issue, which must be addressed if meaningful economic diversity is to be attained, is tuition. Yesterday, Penn announced a 3.9 percent tuition hike for next school year, nearly double the 12-month inflation rate of 2.07 percent.
The mathematics are complex, but because of the formula that Penn and most other schools use to calculate “demonstrated need,” higher sticker-price tuition almost always equals a higher gross family contribution. Thus, even with generous financial aid, persistent annual tuition growth will continue to result in more families for whom the cost of a Penn education is unrealistic — and therefore, lower levels of economic diversity on campus.
For this reason, we believe that radical measures to curtail and reverse tuition growth are warranted. Again, institutional opacity makes it difficult to scrutinize the University’s spending choices, but we firmly believe that strict fiscal discipline should be exercised with an eye toward bringing down overall costs. Discretionary expenditures on premium and luxury products and services should be evaluated with particular rigor. If constructing the next new college house without flat-screen televisions and Comcast streaming included in every suite means more low- and middle-income families can afford their tuition payments, then the sacrifice is worth making.
But the student body itself has a role to play in the remedy as well. Many student clubs and activities charge high fees for participation, often with little if any need-based aid available to defray those costs. Furthermore, student social life, whether organized or spontaneous, often comes with significant incidental expenses. Greek organizations — particularly sororities — frequently play the poster child for this phenomenon, but club athletics, performance groups and common-interest groups can be pricey as well. The result is a student culture that can be inaccessible for those without significant disposable incomes, and a sense of alienation among students for whom thrift is a necessity. In student life leadership no less than in university administration, economic accessibility should supersede luxury expenditure.
A useful first step for the school would be to track and publish economic diversity data for future incoming classes. There is no good reason why the Penn community should first hear of this striking gap from The New York Times. Other reforms will take time, but greater transparency in this regard may be easily accomplished. Though Penn is fond of highlighting its cultural diversity, integrity demands that it shine light on realms of diversity that warrant additional effort, in addition to areas in which it has enjoyed success.