This past weekend I visited the University of Pennsylvania to attend Ivy In Your Back Yard, a program to help Philadelphia-area college-bound students and their parents begin their college search. Ivy In Your Back Yard was designed to help all college-bound families, whether they chose to apply to Penn or not. However, it did represent an opportunity to showcase Penn to the audience and encourage families to tour the campus on a beautiful May day. I snapped a few pictures and also found a few more to make a Pinterest page.

I have been to the University of Pennsylvania several times. I competed and judged in high school speech tournaments here for four years. I have also attended professional conferences on campus as well as Ivy In Your Back Yard. The time that I had on campus this past weekend gave me a chance to reflect on just how “great” Penn is.

Founded by American patriot Benjamin Franklin (his statue is in the picture with this post), the University of Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s oldest and most important research universities. It is home to the first medical school in the United States as well as the first business school. It also, among many other firsts, was the first U.S. college to have a student center. That very building, Houston Hall, was the venue for Ivy In Your Back Yard.

In addition, the University of Pennsylvania has more undergraduate, graduate, professional and continuing education programs on the same campus than any other Ivy League school. I have been to every Ivy excluding Dartmouth. I believe that Penn is more connected to its community than the other seven schools, in large part due to its Philadelphia roots.

I have no doubt that Penn is engaged because it wants to be a good citizen of Philadelphia. But there are self interests as well. Penn is located within a neighborhood called University City, and it is not the only school there. Drexel University, which offers many of the same academic programs as Penn is right next door. Drexel has been aggressive in adding a law school as well as a medical school to its offerings in business, education, engineering, health sciences and the liberal arts. That university has also built an impressive business school building. Drexel has, due in part to its emphasis on cooperative education and its growth, become a formidable rival to Penn to attract excellent students to the same neighborhood. While Drexel will not be able to pry away many students who are likely bound for Penn, it can attract its fair share through co-op and scholarships. Penn also needs Drexel to succeed; an academically and fiscally stronger neighbor is a win for both schools when it comes to building the neighborhood.

Who should consider going to Penn?

To me such students should have a curiosity, if not a high comfort level with city life. Penn is also more like a large urban private university like NYU, Tulane or USC than it is like the other Ivies. Undergraduates are not expected to live on campus after the freshman or sophomore year. They are also more likely to use the city, as opposed to the campus, for much of their social life. The Penn student might also be more career oriented than a friend at Harvard or Yale because of the larger number of pre-professional offerings, as well as the opportunity to work in a major city in an internship, part-time or summer job in your chosen field.

The prospective Penn student might not find the same strengths at Cornell as well as the other Ivies that are also located in urban settings (Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Yale). The undergraduate experience at the other urban Ivies is more directed towards the liberal arts and campus living. While almost half of Penn undergraduates live off campus, nearly all of the undergraduates at Columbia, Harvard and Yale, as well as nearly 80 percent of the undergraduates at Brown, live in university-owned housing.

Of course, it is exceptionally hard to get into Penn. In 2013, only 12 percent of all applicants were accepted; this was the same as the year before. This year the percentage is likely to be the same or lower. Transfer students will have a tougher time. In 2012, only seven percent of those who applied got in.

It would be silly for me to give Penn a report card. The only area that Penn fails to ace is Comforts. The cost of living in an apartment complex University City is very high, while Penn, unlike the other Ivies, cannot house everyone on campus. However, Greek life is also popular at Penn–about a third of the undergraduates participate–and it offers lower housing costs. I’ll give the school a ‘B’ on the housing front because of costs. However, people choose Penn for the chance to attend an Ivy while having the chance to live city life outside of campus borders and university rules.

The University of Pennsylvania will meet a family’s full financial need. It is more possible to receive an All-Grant financial aid package at Penn than at most other public or private universities. There is also a Mayor’s Scholarship program for Philadelphia residents. No other Ivy is as loyal to its home in this way. The alumni support and career services offered at Penn require no discussion; they will be excellent when used properly.

The University of Pennsylvania is also the only strong “brand” in the U.S that is likely to be confused with a state university, in this case Penn State, which is three hours west of Philadelphia. However, the person who gets to visit both would never, ever, confuse West Philadelphia with State College.


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