“We Are…”: Inside Penn State

On January 14-15, 2013 I had the privilege of attending the “Building Relationships” program at Penn State University. “Building Relationships” brings a small number of college counselors for an intensive exposure to Penn State, with the goal of raising counselors’ awareness of the state’s flagship public university while giving Penn State admissions professionals a chance to learn from us about  how they can better serve our students.

The event was first class all the way.  We were put up at the Nittany Lion Inn, a very nice hotel located on the campus.  The hotel is the site of many gatherings large and small and houses visiting sports teams; our tour guides were very keen to point out that the University of Michigan basketball team was coming in that day!  The rooms at the Inn are very nice, the staff was extremely solicitous and the food was outstanding.  If you ever need to spend the night in State College, PA, I think that you should treat yourself to a stay at the Nittany Lion Inn.

The first item on the agenda was an informative presentation by Associate Director of Admissions Tony Moore.  Tony is an outstanding speaker and was very interesting and candid. His main responsibility is out of state recruiting, so he appreciated the chance to talk with college counselors from Pennsylvania. Tony gave us an overview of the admissions process at PSU, and it is quite an undertaking: over 80,000 undergraduate applications come in every year (plus another 40,000 for graduate programs)!  As a result, admissions to Penn State is pretty much driven by numbers.  The admissions department has published a document that shows the likelihood of admission for various SAT/GPA combinations [.pdf].  The data below represents the “mid-50%” of applicants:

University Park: 3.5-3.7 GPA | 1750-1990 SAT
Campuses:   2.7-3.2 GPA | 1450-1750 SAT 


One point that Tony tried to emphasize was that the Penn State system is comprised of 19 other campuses in addition to the University Park location.  These “Commonwealth Campuses” are just as much “Penn State” as the main campus and educate just as many students (approximately 45,000 at University Park, and 45,000 spread over the other 19 campuses) and offer the same programs.  In fact, there are some majors that are ONLY available at the Commonwealth Campuses; the campus closest to me, Penn State Wilkes-Barre, for instance is the only one to offer a B.A. in Surveying Engineering. Students who spend two years at a campus location can stay there to finish their degree, transfer to another campus or move to University Park for the final two years of their studies.  They promise a “seamless transition”.  In fact, many students are admitted to very prestigious programs (such as the Smeal College of Business) but begin their studies at a Commonwealth Campus.


When students apply to Penn State, they are given the choice of listing alternate campuses.  Based on what I learned at the conference, I would strongly urge students to take advantage of this.  10 of the 20 campuses offer housing, and fully 60% of people who graduate with Penn State degrees began their undergraduate careers at a Commonwealth Campus. Tony emphasized that these campuses can be a great option for people looking for all the resources of Penn State but who also want a smaller, liberal arts college experience: five of the campuses have under 1200 students.

Despite the vast student body at University Park, Tony noted that 87% of classes there have 50 students or less.  He was proud to note that only 12 courses out of the 4000 offered every year have more than 400 students.  Naturally some of these are the basic classes that all students must take, but to compensate for this, first year students are guaranteed at least two classes with less than 25 students.  It really does give a “best of both worlds” option for people interested in a large university who don’t want to just be a number.  Motivated first and second year students are given opportunities to do research with professors in their majors.  One of my former students has taken advantage of this, and has found it to be a very meaningful experience.

Tony noted that Penn State is in the top 2% of large research universities for graduation rate; 87% of their students graduate in six years.  Penn State emphasizes engagement with the larger world, ranking in the top 10% of study abroad colleges.  This engagement also extends to philanthropy.  Penn State’s “THON” is a dance marathon that raises money to fight pediatric cancer.  To date they have raised over $90 million, including $10.6 million last year.  Fraternities, sororities, teams, dorms and clubs all participate in the organizing and fund-raising.  Wherever I went on campus I saw people wearing THON shirts and signs advertising upcoming events.

Tony finished up with a discussion of the financial aspects of attending Penn State.  He admitted that it was among the most expensive state schools in America, and that historically financial aid packages have not been very advantageous. Financial aid to students is given in the following order:

  1. loans
  2. grants
  3. work-study
  4. scholarships

Since student loans and work-study are limited by law, and grants and scholarships are limited, there is often an amount of unmet need that parents need to fill through college savings or PLUS loans.  He did point out that this last year saw the smallest tuition increase in 37 years, and noted that there were a bunch of new scholarships (Chancellor’s Awards, Provost’s Awards, and Commonwealth Campus Awards, to name three) that had recently been instituted.  Penn State is also actively fund-raising to provide more scholarship funding.


At dinner (which was more like a feast–they mean it when they say that no one leaves central Pennsylvania hungry!) we had the chance to sit with admissions representatives from some of the Commonwealth Campuses and with academic advisors from several colleges at University Park.  These advisors work closely with students to schedule classes, process paperwork and make sure that they are on track.  Prior to dinner they had given us a chance to attend a mini-“college fair” where we could ask questions about Penn State (and pick up lots of nice tchotchkes).

The featured speaker after dinner was Dr. Christian Brady, the Dean of the Schreyer Honors College. Dr. Brady has an impressive resume; according to the college he “holds two advanced degrees from the University of Oxford, a graduate diploma in Jewish studies and a doctorate in Oriental studies with a concentration in ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature, the former obtained simultaneously while completing a master’s degree in biblical and theological studies from Wheaton College. His baccalaureate degree, in Near Eastern studies and history, is from Cornell University.”  Dr. Brady was an extremely engaging speaker, who clearly loves his job.  When I learned the next day that a highlight for Honors College students was the weekly “Doughnuts with the Dean” events I was not surprised. Dean Brady made a point of emphasizing that Penn State was like a big “family”. He told stories about THON as well as other community gatherings. He made a strong impression on us; especially with his final story.  Earlier that week, the men’s and women’s soccer teams had held a coaching clinic for local children to raise money for a memorial fund for Dean Brady’s young  son, who had tragically passed away shortly before.  Carrying on along that theme, we were told the next day that Honors College students had planned a “Day of Random Kindness” for later that week in memory of Dr. Brady’s child, and we were urged to participate back at our schools.


Up early the next morning for a lovely breakfast featuring excellent pastries and fresh fruit.  I had the honor of sitting with Admissions Executive Director Anne Rohrbach, who shared with us her experiences in over two decades at Penn State. Anne noted that the demographic trends that have cost Pennsylvania a Congressional seat, combined with the aging of the population have made her office need to take a proactive approach to building their freshman class every year. As a result they are focusing on attracting more out-of-state applicants, as well as international students.  Anne observed that the Great Recession, and attendant loss of real estate values has hurt Pennsylvania families.  She said that a survey of last year’s applicants revealed that half of the accepted students who chose to go elsewhere for college cited cost and affordability as the reason.  The University is paying close attention to this, and Anne repeated the point about the low tuition increase and the new merit scholarships aimed at helping to get people in the door.

After breakfast Anne introduced some students from the Schreyer Honors College.  The SHC is a small (fewer than 2000) island in the ocean that is Penn State.  SHC scholars can major in any college (we met a biologist, an immunologist, a engineer and a finance major).  Students who apply to SHC must first be accepted to Penn State, and then fill out a very rigorous application featuring three essays.  Standardized test scores are not considered in the decision to admit to the Honors College. The applications to SHC are looked at very thoroughly. SHC’s goal is to “educate men and women who will have an important and ethical influence in the world”.  Students must undertake serious research and produce a thesis to graduate.  Honors students can create any joint bachelor/master’s degree (allowing for graduation in five years) with the concurrence of the relevant faculty members.

Every honors course is capped at 25 students, and is taught by a professor (no teaching assistants).  Students accepted to SHC should demonstrate “Leadership and Civic Engagement” in their lives, because both will be expected of them at the Honors College.   Many honors students live in the SHC building, which also features classroom and office space.  They also receive a guaranteed scholarship of $4000 per year.  The aim is to fill the SHC with the best and brightest in Pennsylvania.  The students who graduated in 2012 had an average GPA of 3.80 (well above the 3.40 threshold required for the SHC) and worked HARD.  32% had two majors, 6% had three majors and four students graduated with quadruple majors!  30 SHC scholars graduated in five years with both bachelor and master’s degrees.


After the students spoke to us about their experiences (they both put over what a great experience THON is, as well as other campus leadership opportunities), we heard an amazing presentation from Jeffrey Garis, the director of Career Services.  He shared some statistics with us that were eye-popping.  Counseling, guidance and programming is extremely extensive at Penn State.  Students and alumni (Career Services is available to all graduates for life, free of cost) took advantage of a myriad of opportunities last year, including, but not limited to:

  • 15,000 attendees at eight career days, featuring 1,350 organizations (employers, grad schools, etc.)
  • 5,600 drop-in counseling meetings
  • 510 mock interviews, to prepare students for the
  • 14,856 on-campus interviews
  • 11,825 job postings

In 2011-12, University Park hosted 25 job fairs, drawing 2,434 organizations and 24,096 student attendees. And these opportunities are not solely limited to the main campus–the Commonwealth Campuses had 51 fairs, drawing another 2,874 organizations and 20,305 students.

Dr. Garis has worked at another large state university in the southeast for twenty years before returning to Penn State (where he began his career) last year.  He noted that Penn State is far and away more popular with employers than anyplace else.  He cited a recent Wall Street Journal survey (which he says has been confirmed in a soon to be published update) that says that employers prefer to hire Penn State graduates over anyone else.  He noted that the recent “Fall Career Days” at the Bryce Jordan Center at University Park drew 527 organizations, and observed that his previous university would have been overjoyed to attract 200.

I cannot express how impressive Dr. Garis was.  He recognizes that in light of the weak economy it is more important than ever for students and families to know that the cost of a college education is “worth it”.  And he took pains to make sure that we knew that his department was not merely focused on jobs.  He noted that they work just as much with students bound for graduate schools as for the professions.  The amount of support offered to Penn State students, and the respect that the University’s graduates receive was a strong argument in favor of becoming a Nittany Lion.


At lunch (just as overflowing with varied, delicious cuisine as the previous meals), I was once again lucky to sit at the table with Penn State’s President, Dr. Rodney Erickson.   Dr. Erickson was a warm, kindly, witty man who told great stories about his 36 years at Penn State, including the varied experiences of his two sons who grew up in State College and graduated from the University.  During lunch, and then during his remarks to the entire group, Dr. Erickson emphasized the feeling of community that is prevalent at Penn State. Besides mentioning THON again, he told us that Penn State faculty are known for their love of teaching and working with students, and that in his experience this is much stronger at PSU than other large state universities.   He noted that with over 800 student groups and organizations, that it is easy to “make the community as small as you want”.  He said that the strong community outreach and service ethic that is a part of the SHC is present throughout the entire Penn State system.


Everyone who spoke to us  was candid  about the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which a longtime assistant football coach sexually abused multiple boys over the course of many years.  Dr. Garis mentioned that right after the revelations in 2011 he reached out to employers nationwide to educate them about the issue, and to make sure that Penn State graduates wouldn’t be punished.  He noted that there have been zero cases of Penn State students being unfairly treated out of repugnance for Sandusky’s actions. Dr. Erickson is President because his predecessor resigned during the scandal (and has since been indicted for covering up Sandusky’s behavior).  Dr. Erickson made sure to emphasize that Penn State took the scandal seriously.  A search is on for Dr. Erickson’s successor (he hopes to retire in 2014) but he sees clearly the responsibility to lead Penn State’s recovery, so that the next President doesn’t have to deal with the Sandusky issue during his tenure.

Dr. Erickson sees the top long-term challenge for Penn State to be accessibility.  He worries about how to keep Penn State (and other colleges) affordable to the lower and middle class.  He noted that when he went to college in the 1960’s, taxpayers covered 85% of the cost of public university tuition, but that now state funds only cover 15%.  According to Dr. Erickson, “higher education has become a victim of its own success”.  As college graduates have come to make so much more money over the course of a lifetime compared to less well-educated citizens, people have come to see a college degree as a “private investment, not a public good”.  He worries that lack of access to universities like Penn State will further limit social mobility in America in coming decades.  He didn’t offer any solutions to this problem, but I agree that it is a looming crisis, and I hope that education leaders will address it.

One area where Penn State doesn’t hurt for revenue is athletics.  He noted that the University is one of only ten NCAA Division I schools that makes a profit on sports. Most schools spend themselves into a deficit, but Penn State’s athletic department fully funds all sports scholarships (so that the funds do not take away from other forms of aid) and pay an administrative fee to the University.  A large chunk of this  windfall comes from the Big 10 Network, which pays $28 million per year to each member institution.  Dr. Erickson noted that Penn State was a leader in the creation of the cable outlet, and observed that television revenue was a major driver of the recent realignment of NCAA conferences. He said that the recent applications of the University of Maryland and Rutgers University to join the Big 10 (which now has 12 schools, and really needs a new name) are so attractive because they will lead cable providers in Baltimore, Washington, New Jersey and New York to add the Big 10 Network, which will further increase per school revenues.


After the luncheon we were given a tour of the campus.  I was very impressed with the tour.  At about the halfway point one class period ended and another was beginning, and the streets were FILLED with students, professors and staff walking to their next destinations.  The students I saw (and there were thousands–think Fifth Avenue the week before Christmas) looked happy and healthy.  I only saw two people smoking cigarettes. Students kept saying hello to our tour guides.  Despite the large student population, one of the counselors on the tour literally ran into one of his former students, and I spotted one of the SHC students who had spoken to us earlier that day.  While one can probably be pretty anonymous at Penn State, it is clear that familiar faces are easy to find.  Spirit was high: on four different occasions passing students shouted out “WE ARE” in our direction, and we (like all tour groups) responded “PENN STATE”.  It was strange at first, but really fun by the fourth time!

I grew up in Pennsylvania.  I graduated high school in 1988 and out of more than two hundred college-bound members of my senior class, I was one of half a dozen who went to college outside of the Commonwealth.  Many of my friends went to Penn State.  My mother urged me to consider it, but I refused, citing the size, the “party reputation” and other factors.  As a college counselor I have advised many students to apply to Penn State, but I did not really have a strong first-hand experience with the University until now.  All I can say is that the “Building Relationships” program is well-named.  I feel very well-disposed toward PSU now, and I am looking forward to recommending it to more of my students in the future.

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