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Socioeconomic diversity lacking at Penn, study finds

A new study says socioeconomic diversity is severely lacking at the University of Pennsylvania, despite the Ivy League school's efforts to tout its inclusiveness and aid to low-income students.

The Brandeis University study found that before attending Penn, 70 percent of U.S. students surveyed had lived in zip codes in the top two quintiles of median income. Not one student in the study came from a zip code in the lowest quintile of median income, and just 5 percent were from the second-lowest.

"The environment is competitive, and that is mostly in regards to grades, stress, and the pressure to do as well as (if not better than) your peers. It tends to feel like everyone is racing to keep up with each other," a female junior wrote in one response published in the study. "These things are then coupled with an incredible amount of importance placed on money. I come from a low-income background, and that is the space that I have felt the MOST uncomfortable in, not in regards to any of my beliefs."

The study's findings are not considered particularly surprising but come as the nation grapples with the aftermath of a divisive presidential election that highlighted vast gaps in understanding among people from different backgrounds.

Donald Trump's election shows that voters have rejected higher-education elites in addition to the political establishment, Robert Maranto, a former Villanova University professor and education expert, wrote in a Thursday commentary piece in the Inquirer.

The Brandeis survey also asked students about the campus climate for open discourse on contentious issues. Nearly half of respondents said they at least somewhat disagreed that unpopular opinions could be freely expressed at Penn. Students who described themselves as liberal were most likely to say unpopular views could be expressed.

While diversity issues of all types on college campuses have taken on a higher profile in the wake of the election, the lack of students from poor families at elite schools has been a persistent topic of concern.

A report published this year found that recipients of Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students, made up 17 percent of freshmen in 2013 at highly selective schools. In 2000, that number was 16 percent.  In 2013, 36 percent of all college students received Pell Grants.

Among the nation's top 25 universities, less than 20 percent of students receive Pell grants at all but five schools, according to U.S. News and World report data.

At Penn, where tuition costs have been steadily rising, about 17 percent of undergraduates are Pell grant recipients.

The school promotes its diversity to applicants and is racially diverse; a minority of undergraduates, about 45 percent, are white. But some longtime observers say the university is becoming more economically homogenous, despite efforts like a "no loan" financial aid policy announced nearly a decade ago.

The Brandeis survey was sent to a random sample of 2,500 undergraduate students; 1,113 responded. Penn has about 10,000 undergraduates.