EAST LANSING, MICH. - Student applications to Penn State fell about 9% in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and a report by a former FBI director that claimed university administrators tried covering up some of the crimes.
Could Michigan State University be headed for a similar drop in applications as a result of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and other revelations that are still unfolding?
That answer won't be known for at least another year, after a new admissions cycle gets underway. Prospective students reached last week mostly said the news so far has not altered their plans.
One prospective student said he is rethinking plans to apply to MSU amid his disappointment in how university officials are handling the situation, and a worry that some might have known more than they admitted about Nassar's predatory behavior.
“I am definitely having some second thoughts right now," said James Radick, 29, who intended to transfer to MSU from Lansing Community College in 2019. "I have some concerns over how much of this information was covered up, and the seemingly tone deaf responses that a lot of people in positions of power have had."
Yet for many other prospective Spartans, such as Chloe English, 16, a junior at Detroit's Cass Technical High School, the scandal has so far not affected their decision to apply.
She said MSU is still her No. 1 choice for college.
"I feel like this scandal is a big deal, but it shouldn’t define the whole school," English said. "The school has a really good reputation. There are some great teachers and great students. That is just one person – it’s not everybody.”
An MSU spokesman did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Penn State saw drop
Penn State saw a 9% decline in applications to all its campuses in the year following the November 2011 arrest of Sandusky, an assistant football coach, and the July 2012 release of a damning 262-page report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that implicated three ex-university administrators and the late football coach Joe Paterno in an alleged cover-up of a Sandusky child rape.
At the time, Penn State officials downplayed any potential connection between the Sandusky scandal and the drop in applications, attributing the decrease to a demographic decline in young people in Pennsylvania and less interest in college due to affordability concerns.
A university spokesperson told media outlets that focus groups of college-bound seniors said the Sandusky scandal had no bearing on their college choice.
But one year after that sudden drop, the number of student applications to Penn State hit a new record high. That surge suggests the bad publicity from the Sandusky scandal had an immediate, sizable, yet short-lived affect on applications.
The university also launched a morale-boosting marketing campaign after the scandal, called "Penn State Lives Here."
Penn State also didn't respond to Free Press inquiries.
Penn State's former president and two other ex-administrators were sentenced last year to short prison terms for failing to report a child abuse allegation against Sandusky a decade before his eventual arrest.
Sandusky was found guilty of molesting 10 boys and is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.
Parents, kids less concerned
Wytrice Harris is the mother of Imani Harris, an 18-year-old senior at Detroit's Renaissance High School who is considering Michigan State as one of her top two college choices.
She and her daughter had an in-depth talk last week about whether MSU is safe to attend. For mom, the recent resignation of MSU President Lou Anna Simon showed the university is serious about addressing any underlying problems that the Nassar case brought to light.
She said she also believes the new scrutiny on Michigan State from the scandal will help to ensure that university officials do the right thing in the future, should any similar situations arise.
“I told her that now is probably the safest time to go to MSU, because every eye is going to be on them," Wytrice Harris said.
Michigan State is also among the top college picks of Peter Filbrandt, 17, a junior at South Haven High School. He said he still plans to apply and thinks the Nassar scandal does not tarnish MSU's reputation as a whole.
“I feel like it doesn’t really reflect MSU, it reflects Nassar," Filbrandt said. "He is just one guy. I feel if they (administrators) really know about it, they would have stopped it a long time ago.”
Patrick O'Connor, Cranbrook Schools' assistant dean of college counseling, said he can't discuss for confidentiality reasons whether any students or parents have been expressing second thoughts about MSU.
But that hasn't become a hot topic yet among fellow college counselors, he said.
"There has been no discussion at this point as to students reconsidering their decision to attend Michigan State," O'Connor said.
It will take time to know whether the scandal, which has become world news, could have an impact on international student applications. Parents of international students — many of whom pay full-freight tuition — likely have less emotional attachment to MSU than native Michiganders and could be more sensitive to unflattering reports about the university.
International students composed roughly 14% of MSU's total 50,344 enrollment in fall 2016. The majority of them hailed from China, according to the latest enrollment figures posted by the university's Office of International Students and Scholars.
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