STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—High school senior Wilton Smith wasn't scared off from attending Penn State because of the child sex abuse crisis that enveloped the university. Instead, he's more convinced than ever that he can make a difference in college.

Penn State already had the characteristics Smith sought for college: An honors program, a pre-med program, and a large enrollment with high-profile sports teams. Plus, Smith's older sister, Amanda, just graduated in May.

"If anything, it encouraged me more to come to Penn State because I wanted to be part of the class that restored the honor at the university," said Smith, a student at Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill, during a break on a recent visit to campus with his father for an honors program orientation.

Despite fears of a hit to Penn State's reputation—and enrollment—President Rodney Erickson has said the school is on pace to have its largest incoming freshman class in six years. The incoming Class of 2016 would be the first group of freshmen to enroll since former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused in November of molesting boys and using his charity to recruit victims.

The fallout roiled the state and its flagship university. Two top administrators were charged with a cover-up. Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno was ousted by the trustees, a move that sparked outrage among the school's numerous alumni and a raucous protest of thousands of college students on downtown streets.

Mainly, though, the roughly 40,000 who attend the main campus in State College tried to lie low through the scurrilous rumors and media firestorm. Dozens took part in charity efforts to raise money and awareness for child abuse research and treatment.

Thousands showed up a candlelight vigil for victims of child abuse in November; thousands again showed up for a vigil after Paterno died in January. They lined the streets in mourning days later for his funeral procession.

High school students like Smith and their families took note.

The scandal was an "isolated incident, a bad incident. But it wasn't the university," said Smith's father, Scott. "To me, it was Sandusky. Could others have been complicit? I guess so, but I don't think it's right to hold that against any of the students who were here or who are coming here.

"The university is much bigger than the whole scandal," Scott Smith added. "To me, that's his problem that needs to be taken care of legally."

Sandusky has maintained his innocence while awaiting a trial that is scheduled to start June 5 with jury selection and could still bring more sordid details of the case to light. The school's internal investigation, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, is among several other inquiries that could linger for months.

Still, the number of total undergraduate applications to all Penn State campuses is up more than 2 percent, according to figures provided by the university. Applications are up at the main University Park campus by 5 percent, as well as among transfers, by 7 percent, and international undergraduates, by 24 percent. At branch campuses, applications are down 5 percent.

And more than 8,300 students have committed to begin attending University Park—the main campus, where Sandusky had worked—this summer or fall, up roughly 5 percent from a year ago. More students are interested in starting their college careers in the summer, according to Anne Rohrbach, executive director for undergraduate admissions.

Rohrbach said the scandal did not affect the school's marketing message for admissions.

"I think the people who have offers at hand were seriously considering Penn State, and I think they know we're dealing with some major concerns and things we need to change within our university," she said.

Those issues, Rohrbach said, were not affecting the student experience or the quality of academics.

About 20 seniors at Cedar Cliff plan to attend either University Park or a branch campus, a typical contingent. About 14 seniors are attending Penn State from Philipsburg-Osceola High School, about 25 miles west of State College, also a typical turnout, said a school district spokeswoman.

Madeline Barnes, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., said she chose to attend Penn State this fall in part because of the large number of degree programs. She was undecided about her field of study and appreciated the diversity of majors from which to choose.

"Everything was obviously very unfortunate," she said. "I know that it affected only a few individuals, not the whole."

Barnes's grandfather was a wrestling coach at Penn State, and her parents went to high school in State College, too.

While nearly every institution draws so-called "legacy" students, Penn State boasts a massive alumni base of roughly 575,000.

Mike Puliafico, a high school senior from Searingtown, N.Y., plans to start his pre-med degree this fall at Penn State, which he called his top college choice. He liked the large campus environment that serves as the town's hub, and he also has a cousin who attends Penn State.

Like Smith and Barnes, Puliafico said the scandal didn't define the university. But Puliafico also said the crisis was a popular topic at high school.

He figures he's one of three seniors from Herricks High School attending Penn State, down from the typical turnout of about 10. "I definitely do see kids who take the scandal into effect," Puliafico said.

At Cedar Cliff, junior Adam Breneman still has more than a year to go until he starts college, but he has already verbally committed to Penn State. He created a splash in recruiting circles in March when became one of new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien's first high-profile recruits for the Class of 2013.

Breneman doesn't have Penn State ties, other than growing up watching the team.

Amid the turmoil on campus, Breneman said he thought "a lot of good" would also emerge.

"I think," he said, "that Penn State is really headed in the right direction."