Penn Interview: Dean of Admissions at Penn

Great American universities, usually from a single location, foster a global presence and influence.  I was an international student at the University of Pennsylvania, and so I know this from personal experience.

Eric Furda, the Dean of Admissions at Penn, was kind enough to speak with me about how Penn Admissions is "getting global". A big thank you to him for taking time out at one of the busiest times of the year for college admissions. Eric tweets here and blogs here, and is a Penn alumnus himself (C'87). 

Dean Eric Furda of Penn Admissions.

Dean Eric Furda of Penn Admissions.

One of Eric's passions is to de-mystify the college admissions process and reduce the stresses faced by families and students. I've found Eric to be one of the most open and transparent people in higher education. As you will also see below! Here's an edited transcript of our discussion.

Penn has amongst the more international undergraduate student bodies among top-tier American education institutions. Why is this the case?

A couple of clarifying comments first. It is very important in the case of Penn, which is a research institution, to speak of the university as a whole – faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. At Penn all of these groups have a strong international component.

The second is that we often put things in boxes so we can check boxes, for ease of communication. But the reality is that there are many gray zones. Students can have multiple passports, and have often been educated in multiple countries. Increasingly many young Americans in their teens have had cultural and language experiences that touch different countries and even continents. 

At Penn, if we talk about these easy "boxes", we can point to the fact that anywhere between 12 to 14% of the undergrad body, 1,200 to 1,400 students across all four undergraduate years, have an international background. But I want to emphasize that the complexity, diversity, breadth and depth of our student body are not easily “boxed”. 

Now the foundation of the “why” is simple, and families and students both understand that at the level of the learning experience. They know that their child will graduate into a multifaceted and complex world, and the more that child is exposed to multiple cultures and countries, the more equipped they will be to survive and thrive. And there is a consensus amongst educators and students themselves that a diverse learning environment is a better learning environment.

Penn has a long history of admitting international students. How has that changed over the last 20 years? 

I can answer that with a question: how has the world changed? The unprecedented mobility across countries just did not exist in prior generations. The world has become a smaller place in our lifetimes – it was only 30 years ago that Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik to face off in a bi-polar world, and just think about all that has changed since then, in a global context. 

Reagan and Gorbachev in Reyjkavik. The world has changed out of recognition since then.

Reagan and Gorbachev in Reyjkavik. The world has changed out of recognition since then.

This also needs to be seen in the context of goods and services – and education’s role as one of the great American services, suitable for “export” (even though the students come to us). Governments across the world realize it with their own government scholarships, designated for students to come and study in the United States.

The summary is simply this: educational mobility has massively increased, and that mobility manifests itself in Penn’s approach to recruiting great students from outside the United States. 

For us, global outreach has become even more important. We have senior admissions executives in our office who have been traversing the world on behalf of Penn for more than thirty years. They now cover more countries, and we have a larger team. We build on all of the work over the years with more time on the ground, more partnerships with local organizations, more interactions with schools. 

And when we visit, we seek to maximize the touch points. I was in Brazil not long ago, visiting schools. While I was there, we had a nation-wide video conference in which I addressed high school counselors in multiple provinces, while in Sao Paolo. That greatly expanded the impact of the visit.

Penn has done this very well for a very long time. We have to acknowledge that while we were pioneers, many great institutions have now followed, and the “market” has become much more crowded. My view is that the wider choices benefit students and families, and Penn continues to win in the marketplace of ideas through the distinctiveness of its undergraduate experience.

How does Penn think about diversity in the international setting? For example, countries like India, China or Russia are large and incredibly diverse. What does, and can, Penn do to capture this diversity?

When we first started recruiting nationally in the United States in an organized manner, the first places we visited were high schools that might have students who’d be academically prepared and qualified, from families prepared to send their children across the country. So that’s where we began, anchoring our fledgling efforts on these “hubs” or “feeders”. 

Exactly the same approach has unfolded for Penn Admissions outside the U.S. We began by anchoring ourselves in the major metropolitan markets. We ensured that admissions officers can operate with relative ease. Here Penn’s extraordinary global alumni presence has been instrumental – there is almost no place where there isn’t a critical mass of Penn alumni who can assist our admissions officers. 

The Indian festival of Holi being celebrated on the Penn campus.

The Indian festival of Holi being celebrated on the Penn campus.

We then spread our message within the major metropolitan areas, looking beyond the traditional “feeder” schools. Then we began going beyond the major metropolitan areas. In some of the countries that express the most interest in Penn, so-called second tier cities have millions of people and many outstanding students who can benefit from a Penn education. India is an especially good example of a place where Penn has broadened its footprint (in many ways, not just in Admissions).

And of course over time, the Penn message has also found its way to many more countries than before.

The most striking change in our applicant pool everywhere is that there is a breadth and depth in that pool, across so many regions and schools, that never existed before. This year, we had 36,000 applications – we didn’t get to that level by getting more applications from the same high schools. We are now seeing geographic and socioeconomic diversity in ways that we have never seen before. 

Penn is not need-blind for international students (other than those from Canada and Mexico). But can you shed some light on the levels of financial aid that *are* available for needy foreign students?

While we are not need-blind for international students, we should put that in perspective. Penn actually commits $6 million a year for international financial aid, a number that has increased significantly thanks to the generosity of our alumni. 

I should pause and emphasize this point. The cost of an Ivy League education is now $60,000 per year. Over the four years of an undergraduate education, we and our peers in the Ivies invest $240,000 in any one student who is on full financial aid. I am very proud that we do this in the United States – I don’t believe any other country, at anywhere near this scale, says “give us the most promising, least resourced person in your country and we’ll bring them into our family on campus because we feel everyone will benefit.” And at Penn, it’s all grant and no loan. So it is a tremendous investment.

Penn's President, Amy Gutmann, speaks about aiming high, as also Penn's all-grant-no-loan policy for financial aid.

Now within our budget we are going to look to capture voices and perspectives that we would not have otherwise. We have areas we seek to develop. For example, parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are high priority for us, given the geopolitical changes over the last two decades, and these are voices we would like to have on campus. At the same time, we also want critical mass and consistency and avoid sporadic admits from a country every few years. So this is, like so many other things associated with sculpting a class, a matter of finding a balance between priorities. 

What about the international student experience at Penn? What avenues do they have to immerse themselves in American culture, while retaining the ability to express their identity?

Certainly most affinity groups have a propensity to be with one another. And we never want to get in the way of that. But our role as an institution – faculty, staff, fellow students – is vital in making sure that in fostering engagement, we go well beyond the superficial. As a university we spend a lot of time thinking about this.

We have a huge advantage with our physically contiguous campus. It is a walkable, compact campus that can be surprisingly intimate. This automatically creates opportunities for serendipitous interactions – what I call the “Locust Walk effect”. Penn’s campus facilitates these interactions in an authentic and unforced way. 

Penn's ARCH (Arts, Research, Culture House).

Penn's ARCH (Arts, Research, Culture House).

Then you have the more organized opportunities to interact. It’s easy to talk about the classroom setting, but Penn offers so much more than that. The newest example will be when Perry World House is built. We have the International House of Philadelphia. We have the cultural resource centers at ARCH (Arts, Research, Culture House) which just re-opened. The opportunities within our College Houses for common language interests. The hundreds of student associations that enrich campus life -- organized by almost every interest possible. The list just goes on and on. Often these physical and social spaces have been created organically by student interests; and in other cases by faculty or an initiative by our president. 

There are so many different ways of being exposed here to all that is wonderful about America, while celebrating our international diversity. This is really where the residential college experience becomes so important, in the age of online learning. This is part of what makes a residential undergraduate experience so amazing, important and irreplaceable.