What's the Value of a Penn State Diploma Now?

The human tragedy that's become the Penn State Universitychild molestation scandal is forcing some high school students to think twice about attending the college—and to question whether a PSU diploma still has value.

Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football defensive coordinator (center), placed in police car.
Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football defensive coordinator (center), placed in police car.

"Several students I work with are expressing reluctance in attending PSU because of the scandal," says Naomi Steinberg, an independent college advisor in Boca Raton, Florida.

"There's concern from parents and high school students about how the whole thing has been handled. This has been a deal-breaker for some kids thinking of attending," Steinberg says.

As developments in the scandal continue to filter out, prospective PSU students and their families are pondering the practical side of a PSU degree.

"Our clients are shying away from applying to PSU," says Craig Meister, president of Tactical College Consulting, a college admissions consultancy firm. "Parents and students I work with are concerned about getting a job with a PSU diploma—with images of Joe Paterno and the rioting in mind. In a tough job market, Penn State is no longer a safe bet."

According to the PSU website, some 76,000 students have applied to the school for admission in the fall of 2012. That was in August, before the scandal broke. Somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 student openings will take place throughout the campuses.

Information regarding a fall-off in PSU admissions is mostly anecdotal at this point. A call into the PSU admissions office to find out how many, if any, high school students have rescinded their applications was not returned. (Update: Late Thursday, a spokeswoman for the PSU undergraduate division called to say that applications were up five percent from the same time last year).

Only one student has publicly said he's hesitating on his commitment to PSU, but he's a high school football recruit named Brent Wilkerson who's concerned about the future of the football program after the firing of coach Joe Paterno.

Those watching the situation say PSU's academic reputation is not on trial.

"What's critical to differentiate is that this scandal is much more about Penn State sports and the Penn State administration," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of Business and Marketing at Golden Gate University.

"What happened is a tragedy, but in terms of faculty reputation and the value associated with a PSU degree, I don't think there will be long-lasting cuts in support," explains Strahilevitz.

Founded in 1855, Penn State University is a public research facility with campuses throughout Pennsylvania. But the biggest and most well-known campus is at University Park, better known as Happy Valley, where some 44,000 students are in attendance—and where the alleged sexual misconduct took place.

Penn State is often listed in the top tiers of all U.S. public schools. That has been a selling point for the university, as witnessed by a recent recruitment trip for parents and students—before the scandal broke—by a PSU admissions officer to Morristown High School, in Morristown, New Jersey.

On a panel with representatives of other schools like Princeton and George Washington University, the officer said PSU was "great place to attend, with a great reputation." She went on to say "... and of course we have Joe Paterno as our football coach."

With Joe Paterno gone and his former assistant Jerry Sanduskynow formally charged in the case, the faith of PSU alums in their alma mater has been battered, but their belief in what the college stands for keeps them advocates for what they say is a great place to learn.

"I've gotten 40-50 emails from fellow alumni on this," says Steve Raz, co-founder and managing partner of Cornerstone Search Group and a 1995 PSU grad, along with his wife. "We're all talking about it."

"It's the saddest thing that could have happened to these kids, but I think the university has done the right thing by letting Paterno go and replacing the university president," Raz goes on to say. "I have three young kids and I would want them to go to PSU, without a question. It was a great time for me and I got a great education."

But Penn State has a long way to go before students and parents will feel comfortable applying, let alone getting a degree, says Garret Kramer, a sports crisis management specialist to college and professional athletes.

"There's a lack of clarity to this whole thing," explains Kramer. "The scandal is awful, but the rush to make a decision was bad. They should have said 'we're shutting down the Nebraska football game and making a thorough investigation on what happened and who was responsible.' "

Until there's a clear path on how to clean this all up, argues Kramer, parents and students won't be able to really trust PSU.

"They can turn this around, but right now it's not only the scandal but the confusion around it."