The kids who marched in the streets last night — it wasn’t a riot; the lampposts in Beaver Canyon get torn down for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to a busy night during Arts Fest — might have said they were doing it in support of their beloved JoePa, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about the value of what they’re at Penn State for. Most of them are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire.
From what I can tell, Penn State is one of those colleges marketed as an experience. It’s an
academically undistinguished state college in a dull little town with a good football team and a solid drinking tradition (it’s been profiled as the #1 party school in the nation). You go to Penn State for football and good times. Being a Penn State alum gives you something to talk about in interviews and social occasions when the topic of college comes up, and your colleagues and friends who went to an undistinguished college that didn’t have Joe Paterno or epic drunken football weekends will think that you experienced something a little special.
That’s over now, and I can see why a 19 year-old facing a mountain of student debt would be upset when something that was worth a premium last week is now a liability. It’s like paying extra to go to Disneyland instead of the local street carnival, and finding out that all the rides are closed. Why a lot of people confuse getting an education with having a Disney-like experience is a whole other question, and probably one that we might want to examine more fully.
Update: As commenters point out, PSU is actually a fairly high-ranked state school for undergraduate education. Also, too: I’m not trying to excuse the behavior, just find an explanation.