Colleges Play the Name Game

Many colleges are switching names to attract students, but are some schools profiting from confusion?

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As the competition for paying students heats up, hundreds of colleges are revamping their names to make themselves sound more attractive.

A recent study found that more than 530 of the approximately 3,000 mainstream colleges and universities have at least tinkered with their names since 1996. And the name changes have been picking up the pace in the past year or so, says the study's author, James M. Owston, a dean at Mountain State University. What's more, as marketing has become more sophisticated—while regulations have remained lax—some colleges are picking new names that attempt to attract students by creating impressions that, in some cases, don't entirely match the college's reality.

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Waves of college name changes are nothing new. In past decades, scores of "junior" colleges have opted for the grown-up "community" (though that word, too, might soon be dumped by schools hoping to avoid comparison to NBC's new sitcom Community). Some schools, such as Beaver College, have rebranded themselves to names with more academic implications, such as Arcadia University. Many former women's colleges have been changing their names to reflect their new coed status: The Mississippi University for Women, for instance, is currently attempting to change its name to Reneau University. And, of course, large donations have sparked many name changes over the years. This year, for example, Chapman University College became Brandman University after a $10 million gift from a foundation started by the late Saul Brandman.

But many of the recent name changes seem to be more about marketing, says Ray Brown, who heads institutional research for Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., and makes a hobby of tracking college name changes. Owston notes that about 200 "colleges" have upgraded to "universities" to reflect the addition of graduate programs but also because it sounds more prestigious. "It's almost like peer pressure," he says. Schools called colleges "feel left behind if they're not 'universities.' "

Owston's research shows that simple name changes, on average, don't result in big boosts in enrollment or revenues. But those that pick winning names, make substantive changes to live up to their new identities, and market aggressively have reaped bonanzas, he says.

The Missouri University of Science and Technology says it has enjoyed rising enrollment since it switched from the University of Missouri-Rolla on Jan. 1, 2008. Other schools can document even bigger gains. After losing a public vote for a $250 million bond issue in 2006, the leaders of the North Harris Montgomery Community College District, which serves the Houston area, changed their system's name to Lone Star College in 2007. Soon after, voters approved a $420 million bond issue. And enrollment has been rising by double-digit percentages lately, says Chancellor Richard Carpenter. "We know it had an impact on the polls .... It gave us a classier look and feel," he says. Another sign of success: "Our T-shirts are wildly popular," he says.

Of course, perceptions can be unpredictable, leading to contradictory trends. Some public colleges are choosing names that make them sound like expensive private schools, while some private colleges are choosing names that give off the aura of long-established public schools. When the private College of West Virginia changed its name to Mountain State University in 2001, school officials told Owston—who was then writing his dissertation on school name changes—that they hoped some applicants might mistakenly think it was a state school, he says. "People tend to revere state colleges because they've been around for a long time," Owston says.

The 2002 adoption of the name American Public University System for a new division of the American Military University might cause a little confusion, concedes Wallace Boston, who is CEO of the private, for-profit institution.

"Most people think public means state-supported," Boston says. School founder James Etter chose the word public because he wanted to target potential students who were teachers and other public servants, Boston says. In addition, he wanted to convey the idea that the school was open to the public, because applicants need only a GED to be admitted. APUS prices its $750-apiece online courses (which are fully accredited) to compete with those offered by state-supported schools.