Penn State was awesome. And I don’t say that lightly. I have visited over 100 colleges and though I often see features that I find impressive, I’m not often floored by a school. Penn State floored me – I’ve never seen anything like it.
For two hours we drove through nothingness. At Penn State’s founding, it was decided that Penn State should be literally in the middle of the state geographically. As the state’s flagship public university, a central location seemed to make the most sense so that students from all over could attend. But look at a map. What is in the middle of the state? Basically nothing. With rolling hills and forests it is certainly gorgeous but in terms of civilization there isn’t much more than the occasional gas station.
The uneventful drive added to the drama when we finally we saw the sign for State College, PA. Named after the college itself, the town lives and breathes the university. At first you see the massive stadium that trumps the stadiums of professional teams in major cities. Turns out, it is actually the second largest stadium in the country (capacity 106, 572) and the fourth largest stadium in the world. Next to it, there is a major indoor arena advertising concerts by national acts. Then you enter the university which in and of itself looks like a city. It would take an hour to walk from one side to another, and it would seem nearly impossible to see the whole thing even after going to school there for four years. Just to give you an idea, the campus consists of over 23 miles of walkways. Everywhere we went there were swarms of students busily moving from one place to the next. They seemed like clean cut American kids. Well-dressed, fashionable, and happy. Any picture I took looked like it could appear in a college brochure. Bus stops with multiple lines crisscrossing from one side to another (I counted at least four different lines) appear every few blocks. As we drove through, we passed multiple “neighborhoods” with different feels. A residential cluster with a bustling student center in-between, a forested area surrounded by quiet spaces with students studying, impressive modern buildings with striking architecture filled with high tech features.
We parked near the middle of the 8,500-acre campus, and I took a walk trying to find the core. I saw a quad filled with several majestic buildings and thought I had found it. But then I kept going. I stumbled upon a similar area where students were sitting on benches, reading books, napping under trees, and chatting on the steps of the academic buildings. And then I entered another area and was astounded by the sheer scale of what I saw. There was a gorgeous tree-lined walk with stunning buildings on both sides as far as my eye could see. At its starting point, a massive library with columns in front and several equally large academic buildings surrounding it. Each was inscribed with the names of great philosophers, writers, and scientists throughout history. It reminded me of a mix of Columbia’s core and the tree-lined walkway across the University of Pennsylvania but on a scale five times larger. It is the kind of place where you feel that anything and everything is possible. That here you could find anything you could possibly imagine. The opportunities seem endless.
Down the road, we drove into the town which flows directly off the front side of the campus. It felt like a stereotypical perfect college town. Tons of restaurants, a mix ethnic cuisine, cheap late night hang out spots, coffee spots, bars and pubs, bookstores, and tons of retail options. It is not a huge city, but there are at least 7-8 blocks of densely packed everything.
One of the things I most wanted to see at the campus was the Penn State Creamery. I remembered that when I was in high school, someone in my class came up to me and commented that no matter what school I went to, it couldn’t compete with Penn State (where she had already been accepted) because no other school made over 100 flavors of its own ice cream.
Penn State agricultural students make the most amazing dairy products which are sold at a bustling café, the Creamery, right in the middle of the campus. The Creamery sells milk, all sorts of cheeses, yogurt options, and the crown jewel, the 100+ flavors of freshly made and delicious ice cream. You can buy the ice cream right there, but one option was to buy the ice cream with a cooler of dry ice so you could bring it home anywhere in the country. Penn State is a school known for its very proud and loyal alumni, and a stop at the creamery is clearly part of many of their traditions when they come for a football game to cheer on their school.
It’s really hard to imagine what the size of this school means unless you set foot on the campus. It is in the top 10 largest universities in the country and private colleges pale in comparison. There are 45,000 students, almost 40,000 of whom are undergraduates. To put that into perspective, there are more than six times the number of undergraduates at Penn State than at Harvard. And there are more than 20 times the number of undergraduates than at Williams. Students come from all 50 states and from over 100 countries. The size means that the school can support classes in just about everything. There are more than 160 majors in 12 academic colleges. Apparently, 1 in 4 meteorologists in the country went to Penn State as did 1 in 50 engineers.
The majority of entering Penn State students enter directly into an academic college (for example the College of Agricultural Sciences or the College of Education) knowing what they would like to study and immediately diving into focusing on that field. That said, for undecided students, the Division of Undergraduate Studies is an option. This division allows entering students the option of taking classes in a variety of the academic colleges until they know what they want to study and can enroll directly into that college. 25% of incoming students entering Penn State start out in the Division of Undergraduate Studies, all of whom are assigned an advisor to help them figure out their interests and are given the opportunity to choose to live in a dorm with other students within this division.
The Shreyer Honors College offers an opportunity to be a part of a selective and close community of scholars in the Penn State community. The Honors College consists of 1,700 total students who are able to take classes from a list of 250 honors classes which are smaller classes focused on faculty interaction. They are also given priority on registering for classes throughout the university so they are less likely to be shut out of a popular class (a pervasive problem at most large public universities). Furthermore, each of the Shreyer Honors College students is given a $4,000 annual scholarship and is eligible for honor-specific grants and fellowships throughout their time at Penn State. These scholars are also given the opportunity to live together in two honors dorms.
Every school I’ve toured has said that there are extracurricular options in just about everything, but at Penn State that is really true. There are approximately 950 clubs and organizations. Among those, several are huge. For example, an annual event called THON, a 48-hour dance marathon to raise money for pediatric cancer, draws in 15,000 student volunteers. Walking through campus, there were posters for theatrical performances, music, sporting events, and guest lectures all over the place.
In addition, fraternities and sororities are an option. I did not get the impression that they dominated social life on campus, but walking around you can tell they are there. There are approximately 90 fraternities and sororities on campus and 12% of the student body participates in Greek Life.
Penn State is a Big Ten School so of course athletics are a big focus (spend five minutes on the campus and this is obvious). The athletic facilities are beyond description. The athletic buildings for football, hockey, basketball, and more are at a world-class level and whether or not students participate in athletics themselves, it is clear that students are extremely proud of their athletic teams coming back for football games and other events well after they graduate.
36% of students live on-campus including all freshmen. Housing on campus is structured around seven different communities. Each community consists of a couple of dorm buildings which surround a shared commons building each of which has lounges, a small grocery, and a cafeteria.
Some of the dorm buildings consist of Special Living Options (SLOs), which are floors designated for students with particular interests, group memberships (e.g. fraternities or sororities), or with the same major. Many upperclassmen move into off-campus apartments although there are more opportunities to live on campus than that 36% figure would lead you to believe. The freshmen class at Penn State is actually smaller than the junior and senior class because Penn State allows students from other Penn State campuses around the state of Pennsylvania to transfer to the main campus during their third and fourth years, bringing in a number of students in their final two years.
Admissions & Financial Aid
Penn State is a selective university with an admissions rate at 54.2%. Of entering freshmen, the middle 50% of high school GPAs was in the 3.52-3.97 range and composite SAT in the 1730-1980 range (and 1980-2180 for the honors college).
In-state tuition is $16,992 and out-of-state $29,566. Financial aid is offered both through need-based aid and merit-based options (such as the annual grant given to all Shreyer Honors College students). Penn State’s website offers a long list of grants, scholarships, and loan programs entering students may be eligible for.
Penn State’s motto is “Making Life Better” and I felt that described the feeling I had about the place when I visited the campus. It just seemed like such an exciting and inspiring community filled with opportunities to do just about everything one could possibly imagine. The sheer size and scale of the campus was beyond anything I had ever seen.
At a large public university you will find a student body with more of a range of academic abilities than at a highly selective private college, but there did seem to be opportunities for top students to thrive. Not only are they able to capitalize on the resources the university’s size offers, but they have access to top-notch faculty and the tight community of scholars within the Schreyer Honors College.
If you are considering Penn State I definitely feel it is the kind of place you will want to visit. I could see how some people might find it too big or too intimidating. And I could also see how some people might find its location a bit too much in the middle of nowhere (though I found it to be one of its charms). However, whether you love it as much as I did or not, I guarantee you will have some reaction to it – it is a one-of-a-kind university, and is definitely worth checking out.