Last week, New College House was renamed Lauder College House at a ceremony featuring Penn President Amy Gutmann and members of the Lauder family. The family, which contains generations of Penn students and alumni and includes Estée Lauder of the popular cosmetic brand, is a large and frequent contributor to the University. Several members of the Lauder family have been trustees, and the family’s name is attached to the Lauder Institute along with the building which houses it.
The naming of Lauder College House — and the generations of Lauder Penn alumni lined up for the unveiling — is a reminder of the outsized influence that money has in college admissions, especially at Penn, and is a wake-up call that it's time to reform the process.
Financial aid and the opportunities afforded by attending a top college are both touted by Penn as great equalizers. Penn's student body, however, is one of the most financially disparate in the country. It is one of five Ivy League schools and 38 schools nationally that have more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.
In a recent college ranking from the Wall Street Journal, too, Penn ranked fourth overall, but 135th for environment, a category that measures inclusivity and diversity on college campuses. Although Penn claims to promote a diverse student body, the environment on campus is divided by class.
The way that college admissions is practiced at schools like Penn systematically reinforces class divisions after graduation too. A study from 2017 found that elite colleges like Penn rank far below public schools and many less-prestigious private schools in socioeconomic mobility of their students.
When Harvard’s affirmative action trial in 2018 revealed that legacy applicants and children of wealthy donors were given preferential treatment, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said, “I don’t think it should be surprising to people that [the] Admissions Office should know who’s applying [to Penn], particularly if there is a deep connection to the institution."
Propagating family connections within wealthy circles has become commonplace at elite institutions like Penn. In recent years Penn has publicly maintained its commitment to diversifying the student body and providing resources for those from low-income backgrounds. In order to truly prioritize the diversity of the student body and to level the playing field for students during their four years at Penn and once they graduate, Penn must reform the system that claims to prioritize equality, but in its current state fosters a culture that rewards donors.
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