When I first toured Penn as a high school junior, the selling point that most stuck with me from the admissions office was Penn’s seemingly-flexible curriculum and institutional structure. Although I knew going into my college search that I wanted to major in English, the fact that I could take coursework from any of the other three schools seemed like a tantalizing opportunity. I saw myself taking coursework from each of the schools so that, from at least a fundamental level, I could understand the basics of engineering, business, and nursing. While the pitch of Penn Admissions is not necessarily untrue, it is somewhat disingenuous. From both an institutional and cultural point of view, Penn acts less like one university and more like four schools pretending to be one.
To be clear: it is entirely possible to take classes from all four undergraduate schools without having to go through any sort of formal transfer process. And yet, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that it’s feasible for many or even most students who go to Penn. Without any financial aid, one course unit is worth around $4,000, depending on how many classes a student chooses to take per semester. While a student in the College might want to take an accounting class from Wharton out of interest and to develop a valuable skill set, if it doesn’t count towards something tangible like a major or minor, that $4,000 is money not optimally spent. And yes, while most majors do allow for a number of free electives, most students use those free electives to get credits towards a minor or a second major within their school.
The limited flexibility of Penn’s curriculum is further underscored by the substantial barriers to transferring within the four undergraduate schools. Although it’s relatively easy to transfer into the College from one of the three other schools, any other transfer involves taking a significant amount of coursework and writing a number of essays. Not to mention it’s not guaranteed, meaning wasted time and effort if the transfer application is rejected. While these high barriers to transferring are absolutely necessary (specifically in the case of Wharton, which has limited resources) they effectively lock most Penn students into the undergraduate school that they first applied to with few opportunities to explore outside of it.
In addition to the divide between the four schools limiting the academic flexibility of students, it creates a major divide within the student body. With the sole exception of the Writing Seminar requirement, there is not another class that is required by all four of the undergraduate schools. Especially past freshman year, it’s incredibly unlikely that students from all four schools will interact to a significant degree in an academic setting. And yes, while of course I talk to students from all four schools in my social life, I’m not able to see how they think and work in the classroom because we haven’t had many opportunities to take a class together.
Further adding to the divide is that, from an administrative standpoint, Penn treats each of its four schools differently. Anyone who’s read The Daily Pennsylvanian knows that Wharton is Penn’s darling, and that it — largely through the donations of its alumni — enjoys privileges that aren’t open to undergraduates in the other three schools, including free printing and an exclusively Wharton in-house therapist. By setting Wharton apart, Penn not only disadvantages non-Wharton undergrads, but also destroys the illusion of cohesion that it conjures in the admissions office.
It is ultimately the obligation of the students at this university to develop a path that is both broad and deep, and will ultimately result in a degree from this school after four years. That said, however, just because students have the opportunity to pursue learning in any of the four undergraduate schools doesn’t mean that they’re put in a good place to take advantage of that opportunity. Penn could make good on the promises it makes in the admissions office by incorporating requirements that need to be fulfilled by students in all four schools. From an administrative standpoint, they could avoid school favoritism by affording students across the entire university the same privileges. By lowering the barriers that divide students across the undergraduate schools, the University could create a more united student body that is better able to both collaborate with itself and foster a sense of unity at this school that is sorely lacking.
JAMES MORRISON is a College sophomore from Pipersville, Pa. studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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