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Speaking Out

September 27, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03

Economic Diversity at Penn

In 2008-2009—the latest year for which the data are available—the percentage of low-income students enrolled at Penn put us in 47th place among the 50 wealthiest universities and colleges in the country. Just 8.2% of our students were assisted by Pell grants in that year. Only Washington University (5.7%), Harvard (6.5%), and the University of Virginia (7.0%) enrolled a less economically diverse student population than Penn.

To make matters worse, Penn’s economic diversity actually declined by 0.5% over a four-year period; the figure was 8.7% in the academic year 2004-2005.

These numbers are included in a table listing “Students with Pell Grants at Colleges with the 50 Largest Endowments” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 2011). Researchers use Pell Grants, which are federal funds distributed to college students on the basis of need, as an indicator of economic disadvantage.

Penn is by no means the only affluent institution that has failed to attract significant numbers of needy students, nor is it the only one to show negative results in its recent efforts. Of the 50 institutions in the Chronicle list, 29 saw a decline in their Pell-aided population. I asked the Chronicle staff to calculate the collective results for the four-year period. The overall rate of decline in economic diversity at the 50 colleges and universities was 0.7%—fractionally worse than Penn’s results.

Throughout the years in question, virtually all the country’s upmarket colleges and universities have repeatedly and—in my view—quite sincerely insisted on their commitment to enhance access for economically disadvantaged students. Motivated in varying proportions by moral obligation and by external pressure, the chief administrators of elite institutions have pledged themselves to enroll larger numbers of low-income students.

Tacitly if not explicitly, these commitments acknowledge the discouraging fact that the most prestigious colleges and universities have for generations simply served to reinforce the social and economic status quo. Numerous studies have demonstrated that economic mobility is more a myth than a reality in modern America, a situation that has gotten worse rather than better in the past several decades.

Our richest colleges and universities have done very little to enable the upward movement of the nation’s less well-off students. On the contrary, these institutions are, in effect, part of the machinery that reproduces a lamentable pattern in which gaps in income and opportunity have steadily widened.

Sadly, as we have known for years, family income is the most reliable predictor of academic accomplishment. (Academic demographers sometimes use zip code as shorthand for this relationship.) That is, low-income students are also the least prepared students—through no fault of their own, but because they generally come from poor neighborhoods and find themselves in underperforming schools. Thus it requires exceptional exertions to recruit needy students who can meet the curricular demands of elite institutions.

When they become available, the data from the most recent two years will almost certainly be more encouraging, though only temporarily. Largely due to the impact of the recession, the number of Pell Grants increased over 25% for the year 2009-10. (For the data on which this estimate is based, go to http://www2.ed.gov/finaid/prof/resources/data/pell-institution.html.) That increase, along with a change in the Pell formula that has made eligibility somewhat easier, should lead to an increase in Pell Grant representation on elite campuses. Those institutions will contend that the increase I predict is the result of their diligence.

Probably not. Nor will that uptick outlast the recession; nor, more important, will it change the relative rankings of economic diversity.


Providing access is hard.

However, some distinguished colleges and universities have succeeded in reaching and sustaining higher levels of economic diversity. Williams College, for example, saw a 4.4% increase in Pell Grant-holders over four years, from 10.5% to 14.9%. Amherst College increased its percentage of Pell students from 13.2% to 15.9%. (Preliminary reports indicate that Amherst has raised that percentage to 22% in the two years 2009-2011.)

Among what is sometimes called the Ivy-plus group, a handful of similar examples stand out. Despite a slight decline from four years earlier, Columbia’s most recent percentage of Pell students was 15.1%. The figure at MIT was 14.8%.

In other words, despite the undeniable difficulties, it is possible to recruit a more economically diverse student body. And this should also be the case at Penn. Let me put it bluntly: given our Eastern and urban location, along with our resources, Penn should be doing better. We should not be included among the least economically diverse universities in the nation.

Many of the necessary elements are in place, including our financial aid policies—if we can actually communicate them to prospective needy students. One caveat: as anyone who has worked closely with low-income students soon learns, formal aid arrangements often fall short of the total needs of young men and women who may also feel obliged to work academically disruptive long hours at paying jobs and to help out financially at home.

Our recruiting efforts should be subject to continuous interrogation. Furthermore, in addition to recruiting economically disadvantaged students, we will also have to provide the resources they will need to succeed and graduate. And we will have to measure that effort with more detailed data. Specifically, we will need to keep track of the number / percentage of these students in each of the four years of study, to evaluate attrition versus persistence. (We must disaggregate the data, in the relevant jargon.) We will not have achieved our goals if larger numbers of lower-income students enter our first-year classes, only to drop out in disproportionate numbers before they graduate.

Eventually, we should aspire to generate a virtuous circle, in which larger numbers of economically disadvantaged students enroll at Penn, and—following their graduations—become our strongest advocates. To get there, if we are serious, we are going to have to do a better job of finding and attracting these young people.

Whatever the difficulty of this task, “We’re Number 47” won’t do.

—Peter Conn, Vartan Gregorian Professor of English

Response: Ensuring Accessibility and Opportunity at Penn by Eric Furda and William M. Schilling


Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues
will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following

Tuesday’s issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines.
Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. —Eds.

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