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Making the case for a Penn State education

  • Post last modified:May 22, 2023

The Class of 2022 is looking at a tuition bill of $84,571 for a four year degree*. How can the Penn State Board of Trustees convince them it’s worth it?

Across the Commonwealth this spring, high school seniors and their families are casting an increasingly skeptical eye at the cost of any college education, including a four year degree from Penn State University. And for good reason.

Recent polling by the Association of American Universities (AAU) found that a majority of Americans feel that higher education does not provide a product that is worth the cost. Last month’s AAU presentation to the Penn State Board of Trustees laid out, in stark terms, the situation Penn State is facing: not only competition from other universities, but increasing competition from trade training programs that will provide graduates with meaningful and marketable skills in less time for less cost. 

The reality is that a reasonably sharp and motivated high school senior could choose to attend a trade school or enter an apprenticeship for a lower cost and within 12 months or less obtain a valuable and high-demand skill. That skill can’t be sent off-shore, and that senior will be able to repay the costs of their training and earn an income in the upper five-figures. At the same time many of their erstwhile cohorts will be earning no income and piling up debt for an education that may yield them little to no market value.

As a candidate for the Penn State Board of Trustees, how can I convince them that a Penn State education is worth it?

I have counseled many potential Penn State applicants, and here are the questions I ask: 

Would it help you financially to attend Penn State yet live at home? 

Penn State has a network of 20 Commonwealth Campuses (in addition to Main Campus, two law schools, a medical school, Penn Tech, and World Campus) all of which offer four-year degrees. Many of their students never set foot at University Park, although a significant portion take advantage of the 2+2 program. These Commonwealth Campuses have significant resources of their own and provide smaller classes.  75% of Pennsylvanians live within 15 miles of a Penn State campus.

Do you need some extra support? 

Penn State has historically offered non-traditional students an entry point to continuing their education, no matter what their current situation. For example, since the creation of the GI Bill in 1944, Penn State has been among the leaders in enrolling veterans. There are currently over 3,000 Penn State students enrolled under the GI Bill, and Penn State is consistently ranked among the most veteran-friendly universities in the nation (see Penn State’s Office of Veteran Affairs and Services ).

Penn State also enrolls over 2,000 students each year with disabilities.  The Office of Student Disability Resources recently received a $1 Million gift from Dale and Rosalie Hollinger to further endow these supports for student success.

It takes a significant investment in staff to provide this level of support, and not many universities can offer it. When it comes to offering support to help students in unique situations, Penn State does this very well.

Do you want to play with the expensive toys?

Penn State is one of the largest research institutions in the nation. It has the facilities to ensure that its students graduate with exposure to the most cutting edge and advanced research going on in the world today. Industry and government grants support a vast amount of this research, and the faculty is excited to have students working on it. Yes, a lot of this research is expensive. And fun, and very interesting. 

Penn State is at the forefront in fixing supply chain issues, creating sustainable agricultural practices, and leading medical breakthroughs. These are tough, demanding fields that are not for everyone. But these issues are not going to be solved by trade schools and community colleges. Frankly, smaller and less prestigious universities cannot compete with Penn State in attracting this kind of research funding, and Penn State graduates are sought after for their current skills. 

There are many challenges facing higher education. I will be the first to say that Penn State – or any traditional university – may not be for everyone. But for the smart, motivated high school senior, it can be a prudent investment. 


*For main campus, Pennsylvania students in the class of 2022 are looking at an average bill for a Bachelor’s Degree of $84,571 (without books, room, board, and any future increases to costs). That cost is slightly more than double the average costs of the 12 other Big Ten public universities. The Penn State Commonwealth campuses have historically offered a somewhat lower cost, but even with the traditional “2+2” program, the costs can exceed $75,000 for four years.

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