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September 27, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03

Response to Speaking Out: Economic Diversity at Penn by Peter Conn

Ensuring Accessibility and Opportunity at Penn

Although Professor Conn raises an important and challenging issue for higher education, we believe that Penn can be proud of its efforts to ensure accessibility and opportunity for outstanding students from all backgrounds. Increasing enrollments by students from low- and middle-income backgrounds is one of Penn’s highest priorities, and is one of the principal reasons that Penn launched its no-loan financial aid initiative in 2009. In addition, it is one of the reasons that the Making History campaign includes a goal of $350 million for undergraduate financial aid (plus another $323 million for graduate and professional students).

Before discussing some of the initiatives targeted at increasing low-income and other underrepresented student populations at Penn, we will briefly address the data.   

The data reported to the US Department of Education, and used in the article cited by Professor Conn, includes Penn’s substantial non-traditional program population. When we focus on our traditional undergraduate programs in the College, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants in 2008-2009 is 9.6% or 976 students. This percentage increased to 12.2% in 2009-2010 and 13.9% in 2010-2011. When we further removed from consideration Penn’s significant population of non-Pell eligible international students, the percentage of Pell Grant recipients among our traditional domestic students is 10.6% in 2008-2009, 13.6% in 2009-2010, and 15.6% in 2010-2011.  As Professor Conn correctly observes, it is difficult to isolate how much of the increase in the past two years is related to the recession.

Having said this, Penn has taken a number of steps to enhance enrollment of students from low-income backgrounds, and will continue to work aggressively to further build on these initiatives. Over the past three years the Office of Admissions has developed a strong set of initiatives and programs for outreach to students from low-income as well as other underrepresented backgrounds. Regional plans are developed for targeted recruitment, focused on collaborating with Community Based Organizations (CBOs), which work directly with students from underrepresented populations. Our admissions officers also work to target high schools that have large underrepresented populations, including low-income students, to educate students, parents, and counselors about Penn and its affordability. Subcommittees within the Alumni Secondary School Committees (SSC) have also been organized in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, to implement a pilot program which engages diverse groups of alumni interested in working with underrepresented populations and sharing their Penn experiences.

Our national partnerships with A Better Chance (ABC), QuestBridge, and the Posse Foundation, have increased both the awareness about and understanding of Penn for thousands of high school students.  The first Ivy League member to partner with Posse, Penn welcomed our second cohort of students this fall. Our partnership with QuestBridge has helped attract and expand the pool of applications and welcome 169 talented low-income students to our community. Penn has graduated more ABC alumni than any other college in the United States and we continue to build relationships with the secondary schools with which they have partnerships. Penn is also developing a partnership with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a network of approximately 5,000 Native American students and parents.   

As we continue to both learn from and expand our recruitment efforts, we have shaped our outreach initiatives and messaging to more effectively bring underrepresented populations into the applicant pool, as well as to yield these deserving students once they are admitted. Several on campus programs, including the Opportunity and Access Open House, have been redesigned to provide a more comprehensive presentation of Penn’s strengths and diversity. This fall the Penn Early Program (PEP), a fly-in program for prospective students, will be launched to focus on high school juniors and seniors before the application process begins to provide students from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to have an overnight experience at Penn. 

To ensure that prospective students always have the opportunity to interact with current students, the Quaker Opportunity and Access Team (OATs) was created last year. This student organization is comprised of students from the 5B (Student Cultural Coalitions), and Kite and Key members.  Next summer, Penn’s Office of Admissions along with the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the Vice Provost for University Life (VPUL) will also be hosting College Horizons—a week-long college preparation program that will bring approximately 100 Native American high school students to campus. 

As Professor Conn suggests, standard approaches to determining financial need and awarding aid may not always be adequate to address the needs of students from low-income families. For this reason, Penn has implemented a number of policy enhancements over the past several years.  The no-loan policy, while not limited to the lowest-income students, dramatically increases their ability to graduate without debt. In addition, for the lowest-income, highest-need students, Penn:

•     reduces the summer savings expectation below the standard amount;

•     includes a lower amount of work-study in the aid package;

•     covers 100% of health insurance charges with additional grant; and

•     increases the educational expense budget and awards additional grant funds on a case-by-case basis, as needed, to help low-income students deal with extraordinary expenses.

Student Registration and Financial Services (SRFS) reaches out to these students annually to encourage in-person meetings with the staff to address any questions or concerns they may have, or just for a wellness visit. SRFS also hosts workshops for QuestBridge students to address issues concerning their financial packages. The most recent workshop focused on financial literacy.

Low-income students who attend Penn are highly likely to depart the institution with a bachelor’s degree. Penn’s six-year graduation rate for Pell eligible students exceeds 90%. More specifically, among the Pell eligible students who entered Penn in 2004, 91.4% graduated within six years, very close to the overall graduation rate of 94.4% for the entire cohort. The Office of Equity and Access Programs in the Vice Provost for University Life supports Penn’s first generation, low-income, and underrepresented minorities in their academic and career preparation. This network includes the four undergraduate advising offices and as well as student resource centers such as Weingarten Learning Resource Center, the Tutoring Center, Career Services, College Houses and Academic Services, and other VPUL-based programs such as the cultural resource centers.  The summer residential four-week bridge program, the Pre-Freshman Program (PFP), provides an introduction to the rigorous academic work at Penn to 100 invited freshmen. Participating students take classes that are designed and taught by instructors from the four undergraduate schools and are aimed at introducing students to an array of Penn academic and co-curricular resources. For the remainder of their Penn careers, students maintain their relationships with PFP staff that serve as PENNCAP counselors. PENNCAP serves over 450 Penn students from low-income, first generation and underrepresented populations.  

Where do we go from here? Much has been done and much more needs to be done at Penn, in higher education, and in our nation. Finding and attracting the best students to Penn regardless of their financial background will continue to be a priority for Penn.

—Eric J. Furda,
Dean of Admissions

—William M. Schilling,
University Director of
 Student Financial Aid

Almanac - September 27, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03