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financial-aid
Credit: Arabella Uhry

At first glance, Penn’s financial aid statistics look pretty good. The Student Financial Services’ fact sheet reveals that 90% of first-generation students receive financial aid. Families with incomes under $75,000 receive full room and board, and families with incomes under $40,000 have the cost of yearly attendance entirely covered by the school. Each year, one hundred percent of “demonstrated” financial need is met, which is no small feat for an institution with over ten thousand students. One could easily assume that this relatively generous financial aid policy would foster socioeconomic diversity. 

However, the statistical conclusions gathered by a 2017 New York Times report tell a very different story. Approximately 71% of Penn students come from the top income quintile, and the median family income across the school is $195,000. More of Penn’s student population comes from the top 10% than the bottom 90%. The lack of economic diversity is further supported by a 2016 Brandeis University study, which found that, out of the 1,113 Penn students surveyed, not a single one of them came from ZIP codes of the lowest income quintile. Nationally, 32% of college students receive Pell grants, whereas only 14% of Penn students do

In context, the financial aid statistics proudly posted on the Financial Services Website don’t seem as impressive. Yes, 90% of first-generation students receive financial aid, but only 12.5% of the student body is first generation. Sure, families with under $40,000 yearly income have their full financial aid cost covered, but that applies to less than 10% of students. In terms of overall college access, Penn ranks 46th, below Duke, Rice, Brown, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. Ranking 46th places Penn between uncomfortably average and painfully mediocre. It’s hard to imagine Penn settling for 46th place in any other regard.

Why does this gap between financial aid policy and economic diversity exist? It’s definitely not due to a lack of financial resources. By all accounts, Penn has done a great job of increasing its financial aid funding. Penn’s budget for 2019 allocates $237 million to its financial aid fund, a budget that has increased significantly in the past decade alone. Nor is it due to a lack of qualified low-income students. There are an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 low-income students with SAT and ACT scores in the top ten percentile, which is even more impressive considering their limited access to resources, especially compared to their wealthier counterparts. 

The problem lies in the lack of applications. The National Bureau for Economic Research highlighted in 2012 that the vast majority of very high achieving low-income students do not even apply to selective universities, despite generous financial aid policies. A foremost reason for this is a lack of effective recruitment and outreach by these universities, which tend to limit their outreach primarily to just their surrounding communities. Moreover, low-income students are oftentimes unaware of financial aid policies, only seeing the high price before financial aid. 

Penn certainly falls into this trap. Only a handful of recruitment programs are geared towards low-income students, notably the VPUL Upward Bound. However, Upward Bound programs only bring in several hundred students, and are oriented specifically towards the local community of West Philadelphia. Other schools have more wide-reaching strategies. For example, the University of Michigan sent out materials to low-income students all over the country promising free tuition and saw a 27% enrollment rate among students who received information as opposed to a 12% enrollment rate among students who did not. 

Penn needs to expand low-income recruitment programs. Send out comprehensive financial aid information to low-income applicants. Evaluate why current recruiting programs in West Philadelphia aren’t working. Fund campus visits for low-income students from around the country. These are tangible steps Penn can take. Financially, funding the programs would be affordable, considering that Penn’s endowment stands at $13.3 billion. More importantly, increasing socioeconomic diversity is crucial to improving educational quality. It shows us that, as former Chief of Staff John Kelly aptly described, “multiple America's exist simultaneously depending on one's race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born.” Americas beyond the interiors of frat houses and consulting firms. A world outside the Penn bubble. 

In Penn’s own description of its founding, we were an institution that “opened its doors to children of the gentry and working class alike.” Over the years, that proud heritage of civic engagement and progressive policy has washed away. While Penn’s recent efforts to expand financial aid and support to first-generation low-income students are commendable, they are insufficient. Improving access to education needs to be a foremost priority for institutions that have the resources to do so. We can and should do better. 

ALEX YANG is an Engineering sophomore studying Computer Science. He is involved with the Penn Political Review, West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, and Penn Aerospace Club. His email address is ayang015@seas.upenn.edu.

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