A Sacred Trust
To reach the best students, we must significantly boost giving for scholarship aid.

By Amy Gutmann |
In launching the Penn Compact last October, I could not have imagined a more enthusiastic reception across the entire Penn community. Faculty, students, alumni, and staff are uniting behind the Compact’s overarching vision of propelling Penn from excellence to eminence in all our core endeavors.

Penn’s outstanding faculty and students form the heart and soul of our great University. To achieve true eminence in teaching and research, we must begin by retaining and recruiting the very best faculty, who hold the keys to our intellectual success. I am working closely with our interim provost and deans to ensure that our superb faculty grows even stronger on my watch.

We need to create more endowed faculty chairs while we build on our comparative advantage as the Ivy League University that prizes—and supports—integrating knowledge across disciplines and engaging with local and global communities. In upcoming Gazette columns, I will discuss how we can foster an even more collaborative and engaged environment at Penn, with the critical and enthusiastic support of our faculty.

If faculty members give the University its intellectual heartbeat, then students are the soul of Penn. To achieve eminence, we must also attract and educate the very best students. This means we must broaden access to Penn for all talented students who can both benefit from and contribute to our University. To broaden access, we must significantly boost giving for scholarship aid so we can offer highly qualified students from all backgrounds every opportunity to attend our great University.

Nowhere is demonstrated financial need more evident—and the ensuing accomplishment more exciting—than among Penn students who are the first in their families to attend college.

These are students like Carlos Rivera-Anaya, a senior majoring in political science and sociology. Aside from being a high achiever in the classroom, Carlos is also engaged in the community. He tutors children in West Philadelphia. He serves in student government. He founded a student group that promotes campus dialogue about such hot-button issues as U.S. immigration policy.

What does Carlos consider his most important accomplishment? “Going to college,” he quickly replies. “It’s a triumph for me and my mother. I find motivation in thinking about the opportunities that were never available to her and that are now at my fingertips.”

All of our scholarship students are amazing young men and women. Take a look at just a few more.

Richard Talens, from the Marshall Islands, is a pianist, an Academic Games captain, the founder of his own web-development company and, in the words of one of his professors, “quite possibly the most brilliant [computer] programmer I have come across.” Not bad for a young man who did not own a pair of shoes for the first 12 years of his life.

Susanna Nguyen, a Philadelphia native who graduated from the city’s Central High School, is well on her way to a successful career in international business. A senior at Wharton, she is concentrating in finance and marketing, with a minor in Chinese. She has studied in Hong Kong; organized community-service projects at Alpha Kappa Psi, the professional business fraternity; and interned at GlaxoSmithKline.

Daniel Diffendale, a classical-studies major and Benjamin Franklin Scholar who will graduate in May, has explored museums and archaeological sites from Philadelphia to Rome. Drawing on his coursework in Sumerian, he is now cataloguing part of the University Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets—and helping to digitize them for publication on the Internet.

Carlos, Susanna, Richard, and Daniel are four of approximately 4,000 outstanding Penn undergraduates who are following their dreams thanks to the financial aid that the University provides to families with demonstrated financial need.

Yet, for many families whose children are admitted to Penn, finding the money to make up the difference between charges and financial aid imposes a strain that can discourage many students from even applying here. We need to ease that strain by making Penn even more affordable, and thus more attractive to such enormously talented students who have so much to contribute to our Penn family and who need our financial assistance. Put simply, we must bolster our financial aid so that it covers a greater share of the actual charges and significantly lightens the debt burden that our students and their families otherwise would have to shoulder.

To understand why we need to do more, let’s look at the numbers.

In the current academic year, total charges for an undergraduate education average $42,100. The figure—which is far below the actual cost of educating a student at Penn—includes $30,716 for tuition and fees and $8,918 for room and board.

Today, more than 40 percent of our undergraduates receive financial aid directly from the University. Scholarships, work-study jobs and student loans, taken together, average nearly $28,000 per student. (Of that amount, the average aid recipient receives approximately $21,000 in scholarship aid—and some students with the greatest need receive almost $40,000 in scholarship aid.)

Penn remains one of a small number of superb schools—including others in the Ivy League—that maintains a need-blind admissions policy and need-based financial aid. Unlike most of our peers, however, we do not have the luxury of a large scholarship endowment that allows us to offer more generous assistance. We now have no choice but to finance 86 percent of scholarship aid from operating expenses. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage with our peers in the Ivy League.

Clearly, strengthening financial aid at Penn is going to be an arduous task. Yet I know we can do better. We must do better because need-based financial aid is our sacred trust.

To fulfill our trust, I will need your help—because you too hold important keys to our success. You can help us raise additional funds that can be earmarked for scholarships. You can also serve as ambassadors who spread Penn’s reputation for educational excellence and our commitment to access to the far corners of the earth. In particular, you can direct us to especially promising high-school students whose families fear they could never afford Penn. Tell them that our admissions office considers every application on its own merits, taking into account academic performance, test scores, extra-curricular activities, leadership potential, and the like. We then provide admitted students with the financial aid they need to attend Penn.

In recent years, we have worked hard to tell the story of the world-class education we offer. But we know that word of Penn has yet to reach gifted and talented youth in many neighborhoods, even in our own cities.

To put Penn on the radar screen of these young people, I am embarking on a national tour to reach the best and brightest students at urban public high schools across America. Last month, I spoke to students at Philadelphia’s Central High. In the coming months, I will be meeting with academically accomplished students in New York, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Next year, I will travel worldwide.

I will urge these young men and women to consider Penn. I will tell them that if they are accepted, we will support them with the level of financial aid that makes Penn ever more affordable to all students with demonstrated need.

By putting educational opportunity at the fingertips of more students like Carlos, Susanna, Richard, and Daniel, we will build on Penn’s legacy of educational excellence in the service of a democratic society. There is no higher calling. It is a calling that will take our great University from excellence to eminence.

This is the first in a series of columns on the elements of the Penn Compact.

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

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