Building a Better Pipeline
—and a Bigger Buzz

Outreach | Back in December, a group of juniors and seniors at Philadelphia’s Central High School met with a very special admissions officer—Penn President Amy Gutmann, who spent a couple of hours answering their questions about “everything from ‘Why is it so stressful to apply to college?’ to ‘Does Penn offer a degree in finance and
fine arts?’”

The program kicked off a planned series of visits Gutmann will make to city high schools aimed at encouraging applications from gifted students who may lack information about Penn and other top schools—or assume they could never afford to go to them.  She’ll start with some of the stops on her “alumni tour” this spring and will continue “across a period of several years,” she says.  “This is something that I can do whenever I’m on the road in a major city.  Sometimes it could be a charter school, other times a large old public high school.  We’re really going to just get the word out [to students] that, ‘You should set your sights high, and if you do, and you can get in, we’ll make it affordable for you.’”

Like the well-regarded Central High, targeted schools will be ones where Penn’s admissions office judges that the best students have a reasonable shot at being accepted at Penn or similar institutions. While some of these students already apply to the University, fewer do so than from other schools.  A much higher proportion are the first in their family to go to college, come from low-income families, and are students of color or first-generation Americans—differences that will enrich the classes they join.  “We’re committed to creating a class that’s diverse, and these students help us do that,” says Gutmann. “What they bring is a set of experiences that can really contribute to the educational qualities that we offer here by virtue of the mix of students we bring together.”

At Central, Gutmann spoke briefly, but mostly the students “just fired questions at me,” she recalls.  The session ran close to two hours, and “I could’ve gone on for the whole day, because they’re very curious, they’re full of aspirations and anxieties.”

The visits will also provide a window into “what the high-school culture is among students who really are motivated to go to good colleges, and are very, very hungry for more information,” Gutmann adds. “The process is close to terrifying for them, and also is something that—even though they gather information—is quite a mystery.  It seems like a black box to them.” She hopes to remove a bit of the mystery—“open the box a little and show them what’s inside of it”—and, if possible, relieve some of the anxiety that surrounds the application process for both students and their parents.

In essence, Gutmann says, these visits are “one small—but I hope significant—attempt” to address what is known as the “pipeline” problem.  “We in higher education depend upon a pipeline of talented students from diverse backgrounds coming here.  And we know that the pipeline is smaller with regard to some students, with some backgrounds,” she explains.  “If you’re a first-generation college student, you’re less likely to know about Penn than if you’re a student at Andover or Exeter or someplace like that.”

This discrepancy is often used as an excuse by institutions, Gutmann adds, “whereas I see the pipeline as something where we can all do our bit to increase the flow.  And so this is the little bit I can do.”

Some alumni have asked whether the quest for “diversity” means accepting fewer alumni children—to which Gutmann’s reply is an emphatic No.  “I am committed to continuing the robust flow of alumni children to Penn” both because “I think that’s part of what makes us such a great community” and the fact that these children are “enormously talented and well-qualified,” she says.  “But the last thing we want to say is that our alumni children get in because other kids don’t know that Penn has these great opportunities.”  The top schools “are all trying to get the very best students,” she adds.  “And if we don’t tap into every network, we’re not going to do that, and somebody else is.”

Gutmann was the first student from her public high school to go to Harvard or Radcliffe.  “I only found out about that through absolute serendipity because of my mother’s doctor, to whom my mother was talking about me, as proud parents will do,” she says.  “It shouldn’t be by accident that happens.  It should be as easy to know about Penn if you’re in an inner-city public school—or, for that matter, a poor rural community—as it is if you’re in one of our big feeder schools.”

Even if only a few students are motivated to apply by Gutmann’s appearance at their school, “the students it does yield are real breakthroughs for us.  Every student we can get from an inner-city Chicago public high school is a breakthrough.”

As a measure of success, Gutmann says she would “like to see the students who are the most motivated and talented academically recognize that they don’t have to come from families of means to be able to actually have an excellent educational opportunity in this country.”

Also, while Gutmann’s main motivation is to encourage gifted students to aim high in general when choosing which schools to try for rather than to recruit specifically for the University, “I’d just like there to be a bigger buzz about Penn in these schools,” she adds.

Maintaining a need-blind admissions policy at the University—where the great majority of financial-aid funds come from the operating budget rather than endowment—is a bigger challenge than at some peer institutions, but Gutmann calls it a “sacred trust” [“From College Hall,” January/February].  “We’re not going to ever give up our commitment to that, and so the goal is to reinforce our ability to continue with our very robust financial aid policy.  As we raise more money, we’ll actually take steps to improve” the policy, Gutmann says.

This effort does not add to the existing pressure on financial aid “because in the end we only take so many students, and a very high percentage are already on financial aid,” she adds.  “The wonderful thing about my being able to reach out like this is that it underscores how committed we are as a university to really admitting the most qualified students who will contribute to making this an ever-greater university.”

That’s a goal directly in line with the University’s culture and history, according to Gutmann, who recalls being struck by the fact that “most of our alumni, either themselves or their parents, were one of the first [in their families] to come to college, or were on financial aid, or their parents had just made enough that they could afford to send their children to Penn.

“We’re the university that resonates perhaps the strongest with the importance of outreach and of making financial aid robust for all of the students who can actually get in here,” she says.  “What I can’t do is lessen the anxiety about getting in—because as we all know, the competition to get in is [intense].  But we wouldn’t want it otherwise! I’d want the anxiety to be less, but I wouldn’t want the competition to be less.” —J.P.

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

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