Penn State finds itself near the top of total undergraduate enrollment year in and year out, with about 40,000 undergraduate students at University Park.
It didn’t always have such staggering enrollment numbers, though.
If you’ve never seen it before, Penn State has a nifty little fact book with just about anything you’d want to know about the student body. Much to the euphoria of history nerds like yours truly, this fact book contains the enrollment numbers at Penn State dating all the way back to 1859. Take a look for yourself:
As you can see, Penn State had just 119 total students in 1859. To be fair, this was only four years after the university was founded.
The enrollment numbers were a bit shaky throughout the beginning of the university charter, but quickly gained momentum by 1890. Part of this trend can be explained by women, who were attending historically male-dominated universities in growing numbers. For example, women made up just 21% of all U.S. college students in 1870, but by 1890 they made up 36% of all U.S. college students. With Penn State admitting women beginning in the 1870s, they certainly helped boost the total numbers here.
Historical trends leading to college-aged individuals pursuing undergraduate degrees in ever increasing numbers also help explain the rise in enrollment.
Fast forward to Depression-era Pennsylvania, and you’ll find that commonwealth campus number exploded as the Great Depression struck:
Before 1929, there were no students enrolled at commonwealth campuses because they didn’t really exist. University President Ralph Hetzel established commonwealth campuses for students who were unable to leave home for economic reasons but still wanted to pursue a degree at Penn State. More than 2,000 students were attending campuses across the state by 1950. Those campuses are obviously a huge part of what Penn State has become today.
A much more recent phenomenon – resulting from advances in online teaching and the internet – has developed in the numbers following the creation of Penn State’s World Campus:
The World Campus (aka Penn State online) enrollees have made a huge impact in bringing the university’s total number of students to nearly 100,000 as of fall 2016. There’s so much more to find out in Penn State’s handy fact book — explore it for yourself.