man on a bench looking at college campus

by Sally Ganga, former admissions officer at the University of Chicago

When I bring up satellite campuses, I often hear these two questions: “What is a satellite campus?” and, “Is that where you go when you can’t get into the main campus?”

Writing about satellite campus systems is difficult because they come in so many different forms. Perhaps the only commonality is that these systems are comprised of one “main” or “flagship” campus (usually the best known and sometimes the most selective), and then one or more, often smaller, campuses. Some students will choose to attend one of these smaller campuses for all four years of college, while others will begin their studies at a satellite and then move to the flagship. Each system is a little different, so while I am using the examples below to demonstrate the basics, know that you should plan to research any system that interests you, including how easy it is to move between the campuses: you might need to complete a formal transfer application, or it could be as easy as simply registering for classes at a different campus. Let’s take a look at some of the most well-known satellite systems out there.

Public Universities

One of the best known of these systems is the Pennsylvania State University. PSU features 20 undergraduate campuses that serve 725,000 students, and each campus is unique and designed to accommodate students with different needs. For example, Penn State Altoona is a small college offering the benefits of smaller classes and a more intimate setting, but because it is located close to Penn State University Park (the flagship campus), students can also access the opportunities of the larger campus. In addition to Penn State’s residential satellite campuses, there are also campuses designed to serve commuter students. Some students at satellite campuses choose to graduate from their satellite campus, while others move to University Park. While in many systems a student might need to complete a formal application to transfer between campuses, Penn State students move among campuses through the Penn State 2+2 plan, which requires only meeting with an advisor to make sure they are meeting the necessary requirements. And, a student’s diploma will say the same thing if they graduate from Penn State University Park or one of the satellite campuses.

Although the Arizona State University system isn’t as large as PSU, it provides similar flexibility in the kind of campus you attend. The flagship campus in Tempe works well for a student who wants a very large undergraduate population with loads of school spirit. However, if you want something quieter, with fewer students and lots of access to the outdoors, you can try the Lake Havasu campus. For the commuter student, the downtown Phoenix campus may be an ideal fit. So again, the satellite campuses are not lesser than the main campus: instead, they simply provide a different experience geared toward students who have different wants or needs.

Private Universities

Some private universities have satellite campuses as well. As one example, Emory University has two campuses for undergraduate students. Oxford, the satellite campus, is specifically designed to give students two years in a small, liberal arts environment before moving to the main Emory campus in Atlanta. The Oxford campus offers a more intimate and nurturing setting and, according to the Oxford website, “exceptional leadership opportunities.” Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley location is another example of a satellite campus, although as can sometimes be the case, this one is limited to students pursuing Masters’ degrees.

Overseas Options

An additional component of a satellite system may be an overseas campus. Some universities, like Tufts, have campuses overseas for students to use for short-term study abroad purposes, but others, like New York University, have overseas “portal” campuses, which offer four-year degrees but also allow students to move back and forth between them.

In other words, satellite campuses, by and large, offer experiences that are different but not better or worse than the flagship campus. As with everything in the college selection process, it comes down to fit. What kind of experience do you, the student, need to thrive?

Getting the Most Out of a College Visit

Written by Sally Ganga
Sally Ganga is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Sally was a senior admissions officer at The University of Chicago, Reed College, and Whittier College. Visit our website to learn more about Sally Ganga.