A chasm runs along Walnut Street. On one side lies our own august institution, the University of Pennsylvania, proud home of the Quakers (who weren’t actually mostly Quakers). On the other side, separated by the seemingly impassable moat of 34th Street, lies a mysterious academic institution called Drexel, where there are supposedly dragons. And that’s not to mention the even more mysterious Temple.
Meanwhile, Penn students can easily take on the guise of students at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, or Swarthmore, three small-ish liberal arts colleges in the Philadelphia suburbs, through a program called the Quaker Consortium. So why does the university regard the other side of 34th Street as foreign territory, while maintaining a pact of friendship stretching deep into the suburbs?
The obvious answer is elitism. Saying that students can take classes at top-ranked liberal arts colleges sounds prestigious on Kite and Key tours. Saying that students can take classes at nearby Drexel and Temple? Not so much.
To me, this sentiment is ridiculous. It’s past time for Penn to either add Drexel and Temple to the Quaker Consortium, or create a new agreement with them. There are certainly students at these institutions who would be interested in taking classes at Penn, and it makes sense to let them do so as easily as possible. By the same token, Penn students should be able to take classes not available here at other institutions, to help students further explore their academic interests.
The academic benefits are obvious, but the rewards don’t end there. More contact between Penn students and students at other universities widens the social circle for students at all schools. Penn’s student body, with its passion for finance and consulting, can lead students to be wildly out-of-touch with typical American life. More relationships with people outside the Penn bubble can help with that.
Plus, if Penn actually cares about serving diverse students, these partnerships are with highly diverse schools. For example, both Temple and Drexel serve a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than Penn.
The obvious claim against this is that Temple and Drexel students will not be able to handle the workload of Penn. But this doesn’t seem true. To start, Philadelphians, like current Drexel student Sara Gebrekidan, can take certain classes at Penn when in high school. It’s true that SAT scores are slightly lower at Drexel and Temple than at Bryn Mawr, but that’s not a particularly accurate metric of academic difficulty. Furthermore, it seems clear that students can judge quite well for themselves whether or not a class is too difficult; Penn students frequently drop overly difficult classes early on.
A more valid motivation for only forming a partnership of this kind with liberal arts colleges is that they are small and limited in how many classes they can offer, so their students need this more. Similarly, there’s a possible concern that there wouldn’t be any classes that students from one of the city schools would want to take at the other.
However, as Gebrekidan, who transferred to Drexel from Temple, pointed out, language offerings at Drexel and Temple are limited compared to Penn. The Quaker Consortium, as of 2015, served mostly students coming in to Philadelphia, but, since Drexel and Temple offer non-liberal-arts programs also, it’s a reasonable guess that Penn students would be more interested in these programs.
It’s also true that Drexel, with its quarter system, and also Temple operate on different academic schedules than Penn. While this should decrease the number of students interested in the program, the larger student bodies and short transit times mean that the program would likely serve a number of students roughly similar to that served by the Quaker Consortium as it stands.
But how far should this program go? Many of the arguments certainly apply to other Philadelphia-area schools like Villanova. But Drexel and Temple have a unique combination of a large student population, strong academics, and easy SEPTA connections. It makes the most sense for Penn to start in its own backyard when expanding its cross-university programs.
In the end, there’s a lack of good explanations for why Drexel, Temple, and Penn stand so far apart academically, despite standing so close geographically. The university shouldn’t let bias against less prestigious schools prevent them from creating a problem like the Quaker Consortium, in order to improve educational opportunities for students at all three local schools.
BENJAMIN McAVOY-BICKFORD is a College first year from Chapel Hill, NC. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.