Pennsylvania State University
PENN STATE UNIVERSITY (visit 7/31 – 8/1/16)
For such an overwhelmingly large flagship institution, campus is surprisingly manageable. Students can walk across the main part of campus in probably 15-20 minutes, and there are buses that loop around regularly. Beyond that, for students wondering about finding their place among 45,000 undergrads, “there are tons of ways to make the campus small.”
“We’re clearly a public university, but when you look at grad and retention rates and what students are doing here, we look like a more prestigious private university.” Their retention rate freshman-to-sophomore year is 93% (30% above average) and their graduation rate is 87%, so they must be doing something right in terms of getting students connected to the university and to each other!
University Park is the state’s land-grant institution and is the main campus of the Commonwealth Campus System, but there are branch campuses all over the state, some campuses housing as few as 600 students. The curriculum is exactly the same regardless of where they do the work. “Math 101 at York is the same as Erie is the same as University Park,” said an admissions rep. “Regardless of where you start or where you graduate from, the degree says The Pennsylvania State University. A common path is the 2+2 plan: students complete 2 years at another campus to do the prereqs. As long as they have the minimum GPA, they can move right over. It’s not a transfer since it’s the same system, and it’s cheaper to start somewhere else. We have our own nuclear power plant, our own airport, our own zip code,” said a rep. “It simply costs more to run this campus.”
The University Park campus receives 80-100,000 apps every year. Currently, the only way to apply to PSU is through the My Penn State Account (although they will eventually use the Coalition App). They highly encourage students to submit applications by November 30. Although admissions is rolling, the criteria goes up after that. Students who apply by 11/30 get an answer by the end of January. Decisions are posted on their Account 1-2 days before the letter is sent; they also accept their offer through the account.
Students can list a first and second choice campus as well as the Summer Start option. This gives them as many opportunities as possible to be admitted to the system. Summer Start is not remedial, but gives students a way to get acclimated both the campus and the academics (they’ll take 2 3-credit classes that summer). There are about 10,000 students on campus over the summer, some as part of this program, some working, and some doing research.
This is a Research 1 Institution, and they’re ranked in the top 5 in the nation for internships. Last year, they received $800 million for undergrad research; students in all majors have opportunities to participate.
Despite the university’s size, classes average 25-30 students, and surprisingly mostly taught by professors. “With the exception of CASS 101 (Required), I never just had a TA teach a class,” said a student on the panel. The biggest lecture hall on campus seats 725, and many of the students had at least 1 class in there. The largest classes were 650 in Intro Physiology, about 700 in Philosophy of Love and Sex; 720 in MicroEcon (“There were maybe 5 free seats in the lecture hall”), and 200 in Physics. However, the smallest classes ranged from 10 to 20 (often Freshman Seminar). Freshmen are guaranteed 2 classes of 30 or fewer: FYE and English 101.
The students on the panel listed these as their favorite classes:
- Human Development and Family Studies. “The prof was amazing. She was really family-oriented and used her own family as examples. The class was interactive. She’d have students tell stories so I got to know people in the lecture hall. It felt unique.”
- Forensic Science: “We’re learning about all cases like OJ Simpson from a professor who worked in the FBI during all that.”
- Accoustics: it’s about how speech and hearing all work together “behind the scenes.”
- Intro to Business Management: “It was taught by an interactive Prof. He played games to get people involved and would throw the football into the crowd. Whoever caught it had to answer. Sometimes people were sleeping and he’d hit them with the football to wake them up.
- Entomology: “I’m not a bug person, but by the end, I thought it was cool because I could identify the bugs I didn’t like!”
- Differential Equations: “I had the BEST math prof on campus. He would draw sharks on everything.”
- Ballroom Dance class
- Childhood Temperament and Behavior: “We got to do research for part of the class.”
Nursing is their one direct-admit program. “If they are not accepted as freshmen, they will not earn a degree in nursing from Penn State.” For all other majors, students start in the school they’re interested in but don’t declare their major until the end of their 2nd year after they finish the pre-reqs and have the minimum GPA. The Department of Undergrad Studies is for people who don’t know what they want to do yet. “Undeclared does not mean unguided,” said a rep. “They still get advising and help determining what they want to do.”
Schreyer Honors College is “one of the best in the nation;” students can participate in it at any of the 20 campuses. This requires a separate application; about 300 students are accepted per year. It comes with a $4500 scholarship/year and students get priority scheduling. There are separate living options that they take advantage of if interested. They need to write a thesis, which is mandatory in order to earn the honors designation on their degree. Students can do this at any of the 20 campuses. Each one also has separate honors programs.
Housing is not guaranteed, and only about 50% of people will stay on campus after freshman year. “Off-campus living is great but you have to plan a year in advance. By the end of October, you need to know where you’ll be living the next school year or you’re going to be scrambling. It’s kind of ridiculous especially for freshmen. It’s like taking a leap of faith in some ways because you jump in and don’t even know for sure if you like living with the people yet.” They have an off-campus living fair that coincides with Parents Weekend.