Dear Penn administrators, trustees and policymakers
We, students and alumni of your university, have assembled today as the #MillionStudentMarch to call upon you to address a moral crisis. American higher education is being commodified on an intolerable scale. Soaring tuition and student debt levels (over $1 trillion nationwide) are reinforcing financial inequalities of access to higher learning. Unlivable wages offered to student workers and adjunct professors are driving poor and working class students out of academia while campus workers struggle to afford to send their children to the universities their labor sustains. Urban private universities are becoming “mega-nonprofits” while the cities they reside in see their budgets starved and public education subject to a crippling austerity, and predominantly working-class and non-white community residents are displaced by the gentrification wrought by expansion, construction and an influx of affluent, transient student-residents. We believe that these issues are as relevant and serious at Penn as at other universities rallying today across the country, and this is why we are making the following 3 demands: for the Board of Trustees to form a committee to immediately and transparently work to reduce our university’s exorbitant tuition rates, reduce debt burdens and extend financial aid to your students, especially poor students and students of color; to enact a truly livable $15 minimum wage across campus; and to pay PILOTs to the City of Philadelphia to fund our city’s ailing K-12 public schools.
Form a committee to investigate and address tuition and student debt
It is no secret that tuition and fees at the University of Pennsylvania are sky-high. This year, Penn raised tuition from $42,176 to $43,838; room and board increased from $13,464 to $13,990; and fees increased from $5,492 to $5,698. The cost of attending Penn for one year is greater the median annual income in the United States. Penn defends its astronomical tuition and fees rates by saying that only affluent students who can afford to pay will pay full tuition; most students are on some form of financial aid. Penn proudly touts its “no-loan policy”, promising to meets its students’ financial needs so that they do not need to take out loans.
If Penn were truly a “no-loan” school, this would indeed be something to be proud of. It would be true civic leadership. But we know that this is not the case. We know because many among us are taking out tens of thousands in student loans in order to graduate, including many of us who receive financial aid. At the beginning of this year, the federal Department of Education published its “College Scorecard” which assesses affordability and other factors at colleges around the country. According to this report, the average Penn student has $20,407 in debt at the time they begin making repayments on loans: the highest of any Ivy League school. Furthermore, according to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), Penn students take out loans at a rate of 36%, the third-highest in the Ivy League. Even the statistics SFS prefers to cite from TICAS put Penn students’ average debt at $19,788, near the top of the Ivy League. Much of this debt is held my students who are receiving at least partial financial aid, and it includes many working-class students, students of color and undocumented students. These realities suggest a hollowness to Penn’s claims to be doing enough to ensure equity and access for its financially disadvantaged students. This is why we call for fiscal redistribution to reduce the financial burdens of the student body and especially its most disadvantaged members.
Enact a $15 minimum wage across campus
Furthermore, although Penn touts its status as the city’s largest private employer as an example of its “civic leadership”, the reality is that many of these campus workers—dining hall staff, adjunct professors, janitorial staff—are paid wages that do not hold up against the rising cost of living in the area. For many of these workers, Penn’s economic “boom” means higher rents and neighborhood displacement due to gentrification. It is the many of the same workers who make Penn run whose children must attend Philadelphia’s understaffed and precarious public schools. Meanwhile, economically disadvantaged or precarious student workers do not earn enough from their on-campus jobs to realistically support themselves, and many take strenuous off-campus jobs that inhibit their freedom to participate on campus. This is why we call for Penn to enact a campus-wide $15 minimum wage.
We as students stand in solidarity with campus workers and with all residents of the West Philadelphia community. Many of us assembled here today are only transient residents of the Philadelphia community. We wish to make clear that we do not call for reduction in tuition fees so that affluent, predominantly white families can send their children to Penn for free while the community residents are displaced by gentrification. We call for a reduction in tuition fees, student debt, and livable wages for campus and student workers so that members of the Philadelphia community, those whose labor makes Penn possible, can afford to send their children here. We call for greater affordability because it is above all working-class and students of color who are being driven out of education by financial inaccessibility today.
For the same reason, we also stand in solidarity with the Student Labor Action Project at Penn and students at Philadelphia’s K-12 public schools who are seeing their schools closed in the dozens under fiscal austerity, by calling for Penn to pay PILOTs in the amount of $6 million a year to support the public schools. Penn has a responsibility to its surrounding community to contribute to the solution of this problem at its root, which is the budgetary crisis imposed by statewide fiscal austerity. While Penn often cites the Penn-Alexander School, the Netter Center and existing financial aid to local students as proof that it is already “giving back enough”, the reality is that Penn’s efforts at “giving back” only benefit a small minority of the overall Philadelphia community who are lucky enough to benefit from the institutions Penn sustains. Most Philadelphia public students still study in schools that are understaffed, overworked and precarious in their existence, while Penn sits on an endowment of almost $10 billion. This is why we agree with SLAP that Penn must reinvest in the community through PILOTs: to show a commitment to working with the City to address the fiscal crisis directly, not merely put a band-aid on it by providing a limited set of services.
Finally, we as students seek a greater democratic say in the running of our institution. Lacking veto power over our administration, as students we lack any kind of enforceable, democratic say in how our university’s massive endowment is invested. We believe that decisions about the financial governance of this institution must be addressed in an accountable, transparent way that consults the will and interests of the student body, campus workers, and the broader community, not just a small board of financial stakeholders.
In the next few weeks, progressive student organizations will be convening a Student Assembly to discuss the issues we have aimed to bring your attention to, and to coordinate further work. The Student Assembly will seek further engagement and contact with the university administration on the issues we have outlined. SLAP @ Penn will remain the principal contact with the administration for the campaign for Penn to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes to the City of Philadelphia.