When Keith Rogerson’s son told him he had applied to Pennsylvania State University’s Abington campus, the retired dentist blurted: “There’s no place to live there.”
Rogerson, a Northeast Philadelphia native who lives in New Hampshire, was recalling his own time as a student at the Abington campus from 1972 to 1974 when there were no dorms.
That changed this month.
Penn State Abington last week opened its first residence hall, a 400-student, five-story, apartment-style complex about a mile from its campus. Rogerson’s son, Coulston, 18, was among the first students to move in, last week.
“When we saw online that they were building student apartments, I was like, OK, that’s cool,” said Rogerson, who lived with his parents when he attended the Abington campus and got his bachelor’s degree at Penn State’s main campus in 1976.
Abington’s $50 million residence hall, in a partially commercial area at 1001 Old York Road, was approved by Penn State’s board of trustees in 2015 as a way to help keep the campus competitive in Philadelphia’s increasingly tight higher-education market.
Penn State also this month opened a $31 million, 250-student residence hall at its Brandywine campus in Media, a first for that campus, too. Brandywine also got a nearly $20 million student union building with a dining hall.
Abington’s residence hall is nearly filled to capacity and Brandywine’s has reached 93 percent.
“It’s an area of growth for us,” said Penn State president Eric Barron when the projects were approved. “A lot of Philadelphia residents want to come to Penn State and they would like to have that first experience in Philadelphia.”
But the campuses also increasingly are drawing applicants from other countries and states. Twelve percent of Abington’s students were either international or from out of state in 2016-17.
Ten of Penn State’s 20 branch campuses have on-campus housing. A branch system that at one time offered only freshman and sophomore programming increasingly is offering full-service campuses. About half of Abington’s students spend all four years there, earning bachelor’s degrees in one of 18 majors.
“We want to increase that,” said Damian J. Fernandez, who became Abington’s chancellor about a year ago.
Penn State Abington added a 19th bachelor’s degree this year, in finance, with plans to add four more over the next three years.
Abington, the third largest in Penn State’s system, has grown significantly over the last decade, from 3,141 students in 2006 to 3,950 last fall (enrollment numbers for this fall aren’t final yet).
It is one of Penn State’s most diverse campuses. Last year, just under 50 percent of Abington’s student body was white, 10 percent was Latino, 15 percent was Asian, and 13 percent African American. About half of Abington’s students come from Philadelphia, with Northeast High its largest feeder. Many of the rest hail from Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
The Abington campus this year brought on 27 new full-time faculty, its largest group in years. About half are filling new positions, while the others are replacing people who left. The campus also is preparing to build a $50 million academic building.
“When many other institutions unfortunately have seen their pipeline dry or trickle, ours is expanding,” Fernandez said.
He attributed at least some of the campus’ 4 percent uptick in applications for this year to the new residence hall. The campus kept hearing from students that they wanted housing. At one point, the residence hall had a waiting list of 100 students.
In the past, about 13 percent of Abington’s students lived in off-campus apartments. With the addition of the residence hall, that percentage has grown to about one-quarter: nearly 1,000 students who live in housing near campus, said Gina Kaufman, director of student affairs.
“For a number of our out-of-state students, that ease and safety and security of having something affiliated with the university is a lot easier than sending your child off and putting them in an apartment where you don’t know what those controls are,” she said.
Students will pay $7,860 annually to live in the residence hall. Tuition for incoming, in-state students this year is $13,540 and $21,582 for those from out-of-state. There’s no dining hall; students have kitchens in the apartments. A shuttle will transport them back and forth to campus.
Some students and parents said the residence hall sealed their decision.
“We would not have been able to choose this campus because we’re from Florida, and for us to be able to find apartments, it just wouldn’t have worked,” said Janette Ajmo, whose daughter, Abri, 18, is a premed major. She will spend freshman and sophomore year at Abington and then move to University Park.
Jorja Wu, 18, a native of Shanghai, China, said she would have enrolled at Abington anyway, but was glad she had the option to live in the residence hall.
“It’s near the campus. It’s safe. It’s quick. It’s convenient,” she said.
Michaela Everett, 18, of Tucson, Ariz., said the residence hall was a plus. But her heart already was set on the campus.
“Abington was my first choice,” said Everett, who went to a small high school and preferred a smaller setting.
An administration of justice major, she also likes that Abington is closer to Washington, where she may get an internship with the CIA.
Not all students living in the residence hall are from distant states or nations. Nearly 150 are from Montgomery, Bucks, and Philadelphia Counties, Kaufman said.
“We do have Abington, Elkins Park, and Willow Grove residents,” she said.
It’s not uncommon, she said, for local students to seek that “away-from-home experience.”
Students can live in the residence hall only during their freshman year. They’ll have to move to an apartment after that, Kaufman said.
“We’re going to teach them how to be good neighbors,” she said.