Colleges seek prestige by becoming universities

Has “college” lost its cachet?

One has to look hard to find one anymore, at least one that does not have “community” in front of it.

Over the last couple of decades, area four-year institutions, including MidAmerica Nazarene (1997), Rockhurst (1999), Park (2000), Avila (2002), St. Mary in Leavenworth (2003) and Central Methodist in Fayette, Mo. (2004), have donned the academic robes of “university.”

Such name changes are all legitimate, as these schools offer — although some, very few — accredited graduate programs, which is a key distinction for most.

“University,” even one on a tiny campus with meager syllabi, can be a prestige selling point when competing for students.

In the area, only William Jewell in Liberty and Benedictine in Atchison still call themselves colleges.

“We are never going to change our name just because everybody else has,” said Anne Dema, provost at William Jewell College, adding that Jewell is proud to be exactly what it is, a “good school,” ranked 127th nationally among the top 252 liberal arts colleges. “We have always been a college, and our focus is on undergraduate education.”

Rockhurst in Kansas City, too, was content for decades to be called a college, even though it had been granted a university charter in 1951 and had been offering MBAs since 1976.

“It was kept under wraps,” said Katherine Frohoff, director of public relations, who was at the school when it finally changed its name. Nor did the idea of abandoning “college” go over well with everyone.

One incentive, she acknowledged, was the misperception of prospective students that a college would not have the academic programs that Rockhurst actually did offer. Also, she said, “many community colleges were dropping the word ‘community,’ and we didn’t want people to think we did not offer four-year programs.”

It is a nationwide phenomenon. In the 27 largely Midwestern states categorized by the Higher Learning Commission, 143 colleges have taken upgrades to universities in the last 30 years.

Up north, St. Joseph Junior College became Missouri Western Junior College in 1966, then Missouri Western State College in 1974, and finally made the last leap in 2005 to Missouri Western State University.

Hannibal-LaGrange in Hannibal now puts university behind its name, with only a handful of full-time graduate students.

Haskell Indian College in Lawrence began calling itself a university in 1993, clearly as a matter of prestige in the tribal educational hierarchy, despite offering no master’s and only four bachelor’s programs.

Yale was the first college to offer a doctorate degree and therefore claims to have been the country’s first university.

Out east among other prestigious Ivys, however, college does not denote lower-tier or even bachelor offerings only. Dartmouth College awards Ph.D.s, as do Middlebury College and Boston College. Well-known halls such as Vassar, Skidmore, and William and Mary in the East, as well as Claremont McKenna in California, have distinguished master’s programs, without needing a name change.

“The word ‘college’ describes us and fits us,” said Dema at William Jewell. “There are some very fine institutions with all sorts of names. Dartmouth College is one. We believe that ‘college’ fits our program commitment. We view ourselves as a national liberal arts college.”

She said the Baptist-affiliated school has resisted the temptations of graduate programs so it can more closely focus on undergraduate studies in smaller classes with more student/professor interaction.

Even Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, which has no rules distinguishing a university from a college, fell unknowingly into the misperception trap.

“My daughter goes to Oberlin College, and I wondered, why isn’t this a university?” she said.

The Ohio liberal arts school, which ranks 24th nationally, does offer master’s programs in music.

Debra Humphreys, spokeswoman with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said, “For the most part, universities offer graduate degrees and colleges don’t. And most of the time, liberal arts colleges are smaller than universities.”

“It is just a name,” said Gay Clyburn, spokeswoman for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which established the widely used classifications. “There are no rules. No one has said this is what makes a college or this makes a university.”

The state of New York, on the other hand, took issue with Trump University two years ago. The Donald’s online venture into education, which offered no college credits, is now called the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.

Name inflation may be even older than grade inflation in higher education. Many of our universities began as “normal’ schools. Now in Kansas and Missouri, all public four-year institutions have university as part of their name. In 1972, schools in the string of Missouri state teachers colleges gave themselves a new name, just as those in Pittsburg and Emporia in Kansas changed their names five years later.

Religious schools, such as the former Missouri Baptist College, followed suit, as have some medical schools, including those teaching the chiropractic arts. One of the most startling re-creations was West Suburban College of Nursing in Illinois morphing into Resurrection University.

For-profit schools also jumped on the “university” bandwagon: Kaplan in 2004, DeVry two years earlier. Something called “Financial Peace University” offers classes in local church classrooms on straightening out personal finances.

Benedictine College in Atchison, which teaches at the graduate level, has discussed changing its name, too.

“To some degree, it’s kind of a marketing tool,” said Steve Johnson, director of marketing and communications. “‘University’ is at a higher level in the perceptions of the public.”

But Johnson and his school can’t take advantage of it. A Benedictine University already exists in Illinois.

“So we can’t very easily switch over.”