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Penn President Amy Gutmann on why applications are up

I spoke yesterday with University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who was in town partly to meet with some of the many Penn alumni and parents who live in the Washington region.

Penn is, after all, our nearest Ivy, and a popular destination for Washington-area students.

Gutmann has been thinking -- and writing -- about the expanding applicant pool to Ivy League universities.

Penn drew 26,938 applicants this year for 2,420 slots, narrowing the school's admission rate to 14 percent. I discuss this trend, at Penn, Harvard, Stanford, Brown and other selective colleges, in a forthcoming article.

(Incidentally, 1,924 of those applicants came from this region: 186 from the District, 983 from Maryland and 755 from Virginia.)

"We're seeing a higher quality, higher numbers and more diversity," she said.

The overall population of college-bound seniors has grown, although it is believed to have peaked in 2009 and now is expected to decline.

Gutmann theorizes there are three reasons for the application boom. It's coming, afterall, amid a recession, a time when one might expect applicants to flee private education for lower-priced public colleges.

One reason, she says, is the downturn in public higher education funding, especially in California, where the flagship universities have raised tuition by one-third even as they cut positions, turn away students and furlough remaining faculty. A second reason is the enduring value of the education the schools provide.

The third reason, she says, is the pledge made by many of the most selective colleges to meet the full financial need of admitted students. Penn is one of a small group of highly selective, well-endowed colleges that meet a substantial portion of tuition, fees and living costs for a wide range of low- and middle-income students, through a formula that guarantees the aid and meets the need through grant money alone.

Gutmann, Penn's president since 2004, said she has tried to lead the school into an era where "you're known for your financial aid policies. And that's an enormous security in a recessionary environment."

In 2007-08, the most recent data available from the federal government, Penn delivered an average aid package of $22,220, lowering the full cost of attendance from $49,080 to $26,860, with 54 percent of students receiving aid. I'm sure all those numbers are higher now.

"It's probably more affordable now for a middle-income person to come to Penn than to go to Berkeley," Gutmann said. Theoretically, low-income students have access to federal Pell grants and institutional aid at public flagships, while middle-income students often are left to fend for themselves, on the theory that public universities aren't all that expensive in the first place.

Penn's aid budget is up 20 percent to $135 million this year, with half the increase funding new aid for current students, whose needs have grown.

Gutmann is passionate about financial aid. She went to Radcliffe College on scholarship. She said she didn't know to apply there until encouraged by a family physician. Neither of her parents had attended college. She wants Penn's aid policy known to students like her.

"We had better be affordable to the students who couldn't otherwise afford us," she said.

My article focuses more on the notion that the typical student is applying to larger numbers of elite colleges, in response to their rising selectivity, with the effect of pushing admission rates down. Applications are up and admission rates are down across higher education, but the numbers are up more sharply in the Ivy League.

I asked several admission counselors and students whether "full need" policies such as Penn's factor in decisions to apply, and certainly they do. But sources also told me, again and again, that students admitted to Harvard or Brown or Penn will find a way to pay, whatever the price.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  April 21, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Access , Admissions , Aid , Finance  | Tags: 000 applications Harvard, 30, Amy Gutmann, Ivy League admissions, University of Pennsylvania, college admissions 2011, college applications  
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A cautionary tale for students looking at Penn and other well-endowed schools because of the higher financial need: I went to Penn 20 years ago and became friends with a student from California who was getting a lot of financial aid. She was raised by a single mom who often had to turn off the telephone because they didn't have the money to pay the bills. She was a well-adjusted, happy student in South Pasadena and then she went across the country to Penn. She couldn't afford to go home except for Christmas every year, and no one from her family could come to visit. She was totally on her own without a support network, and the stress and academic pressure really got to her. She also got deeply into debt to pay for things aid doesn't cover, like books and groceries, which added to her stress. Families need to think beyond the costs quoted by the school to the real-world costs a family incurs when sending a child far away to school. Not to mention the effect of being isolated from friends and family when you don't have the money to visit or call home.

Posted by: dawn-wise | April 21, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

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