If you know a good amount of Penn students who hail from Philadelphia, chances are high that at least one of them has a parent who works here. Why would anyone want to risk running into their parents on Locust Walk, you may ask? For many, the answer can be found in Penn’s tuition benefits. 

Penn’s benefits are, frankly, pretty great. Calling their rewards package “one of the most competitive in higher education,” a statement on Penn's HR department’s website boasts of home ownership services, health coverage, retirement savings plans, and of course, tuition benefits that have the potential to be life–changing for Penn employees. While there are a handful of small–print restrictions (one can only be eligible for the child tuition benefits after three years of eligible service at Penn, for example), for the most part, these benefits are seemingly designed to be accessible for all full–time faculty and staff. 

Some are happily utilizing these perks. “I did early decision here because of the benefit,” College sophomore Hina Sako recalls. Hina’s father, Masao Sako, is a standing faculty member within the physics department and, as she was beginning to apply to colleges, he put it on her radar that if she went to Penn, it’d save her family quite a bit of money. Penn’s tuition benefit for children of faculty and staff members covers 75% of Penn’s undergraduate tuition and technology costs. Even if Hina had chosen to go to a school other than Penn, 40% of Penn's tuition rate would have been covered as well, based on the sheer fact that her dad works at Penn. 

Meanwhile, Sarah Ropp, the dialogue director for the SNF Paideia program, utilizes Penn’s tuition benefits in a different way: she herself is a student in a Penn Greek class. Ropp, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and is a self–proclaimed lover of language learning, went to Athens last summer for the annual Paideia trip and decided that she wanted to learn Greek for future trips that she will take. Through the tuition benefit, Ropp has been able to take this class at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies completely for free. Ropp enthuses about how valuable the opportunity is and how great it is “to tell my students that I am also a student.”

For others, however, learning about the tuition benefit was a lot less straightforward.

If you’ve been in Houston Hall more than a handful of times, you’ve probably heard Julian Lawrence’s voice encouraging a fellow employee or bantering with an NBA fan about the Lakers’ prospects for the season. While Lawrence's official job title is Operations Associate, he describes his position as doing a little bit of everything, from managing Houston Hall to organizing and coordinating events within the building. 

This will be Lawrence's 11th year working here at Penn. He started out working in Houston Market and credits the tight–knit community of the staff at Houston,mentors who took an interest in his future, for the position he is in today. Still, he thinks of himself as more of the exception than the rule when it comes to upward mobility at Penn as a staff member. 

Penn has about 2,800 standing faculty but well over 14,000 staff members. The standing faculty count remains overwhelmingly white and male, a demographic traditionally overrepresented within academia. Within the staff, meanwhile, there’s a significantly higher percentage of Black, Latinx, and female workers. While it’s certainly possible to get hired at Penn regardless of who you are, “It’s a way tougher road than if you have the credentials and have a lot of the paperwork behind you,” Lawrence, who does not have a college degree, observes. 

College is something that Lawrence wants to ensure is an option for his children, especially given the pathways for economic mobility that it grants. But college is an expensive option. As his eldest son started applying to schools, Lawrence began looking for ways to finance his education. One day, while talking with a faculty member about the stress of paying for college, the faculty member asked him if he’d heard of the tuition benefit. Lawrence immediately began to dig through the HR website and was shocked. “I’m like ‘Why didn’t they tell us about this?!’” Lawrence remembered. He’d been informed of the existence of benefits during his onboarding, but 11 years ago is a long time. “There’s so much we’re doing all day,” Lawrence told me, “so we can easily forget about something like [the tuition benefit].”

Thanks to that conversation with the faculty member and his research, Lawrence was able to gain access to the tuition benefit just in time, completely changing his family’s financial perspective when it came to paying for college. But it got him thinking: Why wasn’t this something that he’d been reinformed of by HR?

Talking to his staff, Lawrence found that the majority were just barely aware of the benefits and definitely weren’t using them. “They’re just like ‘Oh yeah, it’s benefits,’ and they don’t know what it is,” Lawrence said, adding that for all his staff members know, the benefits “could be $5 off at Chipotle.” 

And even when staff and faculty are made aware of the benefits, there are further problems when it comes to their accessibility. When looking into her Greek class, Ropp experienced a lot of confusion around enrollment. Though she had recently started at Penn, she was told she would be okay to take the class. But just a few days before the class began, HR reached back out to tell her that, due to how recently she’d started within a benefits–eligible position, she would have to start her Greek class a semester later than she’d planned. It was disappointing for Ropp, as she had been planning to take the class with a colleague, and now she’d have to play catch–up to get on the same level as this coworker. 

“[The benefit is] not easy to understand from the website. It’s hard to tell exactly what it covers, how many courses, at what time, for whom,” Ropp notes.

Right now, the bulk of the information about the tuition benefit is given to staff members through the website (and, last year, a singular mailed postcard). They are forced to find out the rest through word of mouth, like Lawrence with the faculty member who told him about the benefit. 

Penn purports to foster “inclusive excellence” and yet, they are ignoring the perfect chance to do this — through better advertising of the accessible pathways to higher education that they offer to the (much more diverse) portion of their workers that aren’t already ingrained within higher education as professors.  

My parents are also both faculty members at Penn. Like Hina, I am enrolled here under the tuition benefit, something that is easing a large financial burden off of my family, especially given that I have two younger sisters who both plan to go to college. Unlike the experience of Lawrence and his staff, the tuition benefit was something my parents were constantly being reminded of because so many of their colleagues with older children were reporting utilizing it. 

College was always something that was a given for me. Even though they wanted me close, my parents told me that I could go to school anywhere that I liked. I was able to dream about taking classes by the beach in California or in the mountains of Colorado (before ultimately deciding that I didn’t want to leave Philadelphia just yet after all). As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized just how much of a privilege this was—all of this granted to me because my parents were comfortably aware of Penn’s tuition benefit. 

It is impossible to find out how many staff members are utilizing the tuition benefit. When I reached out to Penn HR asking about statistics, they told me they consider the information “confidential and proprietary.” However, based on conversations with staff members, there is a lot more that Penn could be doing to make all of its workers aware of the benefits that they offer. 

Lawrence doesn’t think advertising the benefits and what they entail would be too difficult to do. He and his staff members are constantly made to check their Outlook calendars and email accounts, where their schedules and University messaging are included. Perhaps reminders to check the benefits could be included there every so often, he suggests. Anything that involves expanding information about tuition benefits from just a corner of the HR website, something that many do not have the time or recall to regularly check.

Imagine how much of a gift Penn would be giving to families simply by advertising their tuition benefits to their eligible workers, and in particular, their staff members. The effects could be revolutionary.