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Penn State History Lessons: Commonwealth Campuses

We are Penn State. Those four words are thrown around everywhere: football games, campus tours, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and even just on the street. It’s easy to forget what that phrase really means, when it’s everywhere you look.

If you really think about it, “We are Penn State” is an incredibly cool way of unifying everyone who loves this university. No matter where you live or how old you are, by simply saying those four words, you belong to one of the biggest families on Earth. And every single member bleeds blue and white.

Mushy feelings about the Penn State family aside, “We are Penn State” is quite a practical slogan. Penn State isn’t just University Park — it’s also the 19 branch Commonwealth campuses spread out all across Pennsylvania. Penn State isn’t just one place or person, but a state-wide network of Nittany Lion pride. For this week’s history lesson, we decided to take a look back on the history of Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses.

First of all, let’s set the record straight about the name “Commonwealth Campus.” That’s the University’s official name for any non-University Park Penn State campus. But more colloquially, the other campuses are simply called “branch campuses.” The term “Commonwealth Campus” is politically correct, and “branch campus” is frowned upon by Penn State. The two different titles have been at odds for years now, but the name “Commonwealth Campus” actually served a purpose back in the day.

According to Penn State’s Archives, associate degree programs were introduced to the branch campuses in 1953. This academic addition caused enrollment to spike at all the campuses across Pennsylvania. It also meant a complete restructuring of the professors and employees at each branch campus, which was a lot of work. So to commend each branch campus on their adoption of associate degrees, Penn State named six campuses “Commonwealth Campuses” due to the University’s ownership of the campus’ land. The Archives also note the name change was a way to reduce isolation between the campuses.

But before the official name changes, Penn State’s branch campuses first had to be established. There was a lot of support for branch campuses during the Great Depression. The idea went something like this: Thousands of students could seek courses at Penn State’s rural campuses. Branch campuses offered a more affordable opportunity for education. Students could live at home for two years while taking classes, which removed the additional living expenses of going to college away from home. Additionally, a student could split their time between a job and an education at a branch campus.

But the University president at the time, Ralph Hetzel (that name sounds familiar), wasn’t entirely sold on creating branch campuses. He wanted to make sure they were the right fit for Pennsylvania economically. Hetzel also entertained the idea of junior and community colleges.

“It is one of those matters, it seems to me, regarding which there should be reasonable uniformity of policy among the various educational interests of the state, arrived at free of institutional ambition and solely in the interest of the strongest possible educational program for Pennsylvania.”

– Ralph Hetzel, 1931

Instead of launching straight into establishing branch campuses, Hetzel decided to take things slow. With the help of Will Chambers (doesn’t that last name sound familiar too?), Hetzel established these places called “freshman centers.” There, students seeking higher education would be taught by teachers left jobless by the depression. Four freshman centers opened their doors in September 1933 in Sayre, Towanda, Bradford, and Warren.

These centers did well up until 1934, but then Penn State experienced an enrollment decline. Thus, Hetzel was forced to reevaluate the freshman centers. Penn State closed three of them, but replaced them with something much better: four centers that focused on first and second-year education with a full-time staff of instructors. Translation: the beginnings of the first branch campuses!

Sayre-Towanda, Uniontown, Hazleton, and Pottsville were the sites of the first four branch campuses. They each offered classes in English, history, mathematics, chemistry, and foreign languages. Nearly 150 students enrolled in these four schools during their first year, and the numbers only kept growing from there.

Penn State’s network of schools has come a long way since then. In 2010, 39.8% of Penn State students attended a Commonwealth Campus. All of those students, just like the ones at University Park, alumni, and football fans can proudly say, “We are Penn State.” Because it’s really true, we are.

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About the Author

Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected]


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