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Images in Flux:
The 20th Century Development of the
Undergraduate Experience at Penn
Part 1: Undergraduate Academics


This exhibit was created in September 1999 by James Ermarth.


The sixties and seventies had installed the institutional structure, policies, and numbers which created Penn's new image. Although this image was certainly more favorable to a more academic institution, the university remained ill-defined in some academic areas. The raw percentages were in place but they needed further attention in order to elevate the University to paramount educational status. Penn yearned for a degree of selectivity that would define its programs as truly elite, comparable to the uncontested standards of the top tier of Ivy League. The University needed recognition both nationally and internationally, for their scholarly prestige.

And what better way to deal with the collegiate-bound populous than through the standardized test? Through the various SAT test (the "unequivocal" gauge of a student's reasoning), Penn could advertise its selectivity and academic standard in one brief, simple but enduring capsule statement. With the advent of the 1980s came Penn's ambition to decrease the number of students admitted and raise the SAT bar for applicants and to display this as a component of their new image.

In 1980 Penn began the decade with an admission rate of slightly greater than 40% of its applicants. In 1978, the average combined SAT score for Penn's future freshmen was 1230. By 1981, this number had climbed 30 points and was on the rise. Bill Brest, Associate Admissions Director at the time gave the Daily Pennsylvanian an excellent summary of the objectives of the "new" admissions campaign, "You can't enroll who you haven't admitted, and you can't admit who hasn't applied." Not only was Penn attempting to attract more academically distinguished applicants, but also to admit fewer of them, while at the same time encouraging more of those admitted to matriculate.

This goal, established by aforementioned Bill Brest and Director of Admissions Lee Stetson, was enormously effective, in 1981 Penn received 45% more applications than the previous year, "allowing for greater admission selectivity [39.4% admitted]," said Stetson. Penn's recruitment of qualified students proceeded via the PSAT tests, which could be released along with academic records to colleges. In 1981 Penn sent "Student Search" letters to all students with 1300 or more on their PSAT (Practice SAT test) tests with an A or A- average on their high-school record. Minority students would receive a similar letter if they scored 1000 or more with the same grade average. This concept was so successful, that in the following year the university received 19% more minority applications. Concurrently, Penn strengthened its diverse image by concentrating on attracting and admitting geographical minorities of the U.S. and foreign students.

All these tactics worked as a cohesive force to attract the shrinking pool of applicants eligible by Penn's admissions standards. Perhaps Penn's most visible triumph came in a 1984-1985 profile of U.S. colleges, in which Penn appeared on the "most wanted list" among schools like: Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell. This was in part because by 1985 Penn enjoyed a University record number of students applying-- 12,800 undergraduates. That year, Penn accepted only 4,500 of them, making the college admission rate 36%. After an applicant yield of 47%, Dean of Admissions Stetson himself proclaimed, "We're now starting to gnaw away. We're now starting to win the competition with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Brown." In 1987, Penn's applicant yield gained more ground on the other Ivies, rising to 52%, with 40% of the class matriculating from outside the Mid-Atlantic and North-Atlantic states, making the Penn a nationally popular Ivy college.

Two years later, in what proved to be particularly confident year for Penn's admissions department, an article was released in the University journal, Almanac, entitled, "The Power to Sculpt university Admissions is the Power to be Unjust." In this article Penn also revealed that the SAT score standards for minorities had risen by almost 100 points in every category represented in the past ten years. This implied that Penn had been getting more than enough qualified minorities and was becoming more selective in all ethnic categories. By defining a clear strategy 25 years before, the University accomplished and surpassed everything that University administrators had set out to do with regard to public image and academic reputation.

The eighties certainly saw further steps in the right direction for the University of Pennsylvania but they didn't necessarily add up to the "sixth ranked college at a university" in the country. In fact, in1989, Penn's undergraduate program was ranked 20th in the United States. Dr. E. Digby Baltzell claimed in 1963, that Penn might be among the top dozen universities in the country. Had Penn really changed academically at all? There was no doubt that Penn had changed internally, but what kinds of benefits did the university receive for its rearrangement trials in the sixties and seventies?

Throughout the 1980s, Penn had remained above the top fifteen as a college at a university, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. It was not until 1994 that Penn broke that barrier, when it was tied with Rice University for 12th moving up four places from 16th the year before. Penn was striving for the top ten the following year, when the college rose to 11th nation-wide in the U.S News polls. Penn slipped a notch to 13th in the nation's polls in 1996 but then climbed miraculously to 7th in 1997. It is clear that these rankings meant good publicity for the college world-wide, based on the premise of simple representation for viewers and potential applicants. But are these rankings a valid indication of quality? What is the real basis of these rankings? Can they be trusted?

U.S. News and World Report rates colleges at national universities by applying and examining the following criteria (arranged greatest to least according to importance of the elements to the survey): academic reputation, student selectivity from the previous year, faculty resources, retention rate, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rate. There are a number of sub-factors which accompany the basic items determining rank, for example a reputation survey among faculty, SAT scores for student selectivity, the percentage of faculty with a doctorate degree, and educational expenditures per student for financial resources. The factors and sub-factors are grouped together in such a way that schools with the greatest numbers (or least percentages when it comes to selectivity) will appear as the best in the country.