College Costs:
Oversimplifying the Picture

As last week's series in The Inquirer attempted to illustrate graphically, the cost of higher education has risen dramatically over the past two decades and continues to rise. This is not news to anyone raising children today, as I am. At the University of Pennsylvania, where I have been privileged to serve as president for the past year and a half, we are deeply aware of the serious economic strain this imposes on many families, and we are taking every step we can to reduce that strain. Regrettably, in their rush to indict the high cost of tuition, reporters Karen Heller and Lily Eng gave short shrift to our efforts and to the many complex factors that have driven up the cost of higher education.

They paid little attention, for example, to Penn's need-blind admissions policy. What the policy means is that Penn admits every student based on academic merit without regard to ability to pay. Those who need financial aid to attend the University receive it. Yes, the aid may be a mixture of grants, loans and work-study opportunities. But every effort is made to keep the loan portion as low as possible. Indeed, aid packages offered to some students--including Philadelphia Mayor's Scholars--include no loans at all.

For families not eligible for need-based aid, the University's Penn Plan helps ease the burden of college financing. The nation's first comprehensive program to go beyond traditional financial aid, the Penn Plan offers six financing options including a line of credit that families may draw upon each semester to help pay for tuition, room and board charges.

Significantly, our tuition this year is the lowest in the Ivy League. It will continue to be among the lowest this coming fall. Moreover, Penn slashed expenses so that, for the second academic year in a row, Penn's room and board fees for students will not increase one nickel in September. Despite the yards of newsprint devoted to The Inquirer series, these facts were simply glossed over.

Similarly, in the reporters' effort to portray a bloated administration as the villain behind tuition increases, only passing reference was made to an aggressive, widely known program of administrative streamlining and cost-cutting begun last year at Penn. The program will save tens of millions of dollars over the next five years--savings that will be applied toward core academic programs. This important effort deserved fuller treatment in a story on a subject as complex as trends in higher education.

We must also take issue with The Inquirer's attempt to show a burgeoning administration in the 1980s and early 1990s while student enrollment purportedly stayed flat. In one of the centerpieces of the series, a chart suggested that only 29 more students are registered today than in 1980, while 1,820 more "administrators" work at Penn than 16 years ago. In fact, while the number of part-time students at Penn has dropped substantially over the past 15 years, nearly 700 more full-time students are registered today than in 1981. And a large portion of "administrative" growth deemed excessive and unnecessary by the reporters has been growth in hundreds of research specialists and lab technicians, medical residents and interns, veterinary technicians, building custodians and similar individuals who are not "administrative" in any common parlance--except that Penn's accounting system categorizes them together as non-faculty.

The most confounding aspect of this myopic opus on higher education was the dismissive and disparaging treatment of the research mission of Penn and other research universities. We are very proud of the fact that Penn is a world-class research university. Research and teaching are our heart and soul. Many of our most talented students come here precisely because of the ability of Penn's faculty to offer them a grounding in research. Not incidentally, many of the services we provide students could never be supported by tuition and fees alone, and we maintain them only by virtue of the synergies inherent in our joint teaching/research enterprise.

Moreover, the benefits of our research are not limited to our students and their families--26 percent of whom, by the way, remain in the Commonwealth after graduation and contribute to its economy and social fabric. Research at Penn--like our gene therapy research being covered voluminously by The Inquirer--will aid the entire world.

Remember, too, that Penn employees scorned as mere "administrators" live in or near Philadelphia and contribute much to its coffers and its culture. A great many of them are supported by the research grants and health care dollars Penn generates every year--not by tuition payments. One could never tell by reading this series, but these employees work for the largest private employer in Philadelphia, one that contributes mightily to the City's tax base and economic well-being.

I am very proud of each of them--and of Penn.

--Judith Rodin, President

The text above was sent also to the The Philadelphia Inquirer for publication.--Ed.


April 9, 1996
Volume 42 Number 27

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