Dominican College in Orangeburg, N.Y., was one of several colleges in the state working for the last several years to convince the state’s Board of Regents to change its definition of the types of higher ed institutions that could or could not be called a “university.” When the board officially amended the regulation and expanded the definition in January, the college’s administrators applied to be officially designated a university.
Its application was approved by the board on May 17—and on May 18, Dominican College became Dominican University.
The new designation more accurately fits what Dominican, a Catholic institution, offers academically and culturally, said Sister Mary Eileen O’Brien, president of the university. She pointed to the expansion of the undergraduate and graduate curricula over the years, from mostly liberal arts courses to the addition of more business, science and technology courses, as well as doctoral programs in nursing and physical therapy. She said the cachet of “university” also suits the institution.
Under the state board’s previous definition, an institution could only be designated as a university if it offered “a range of registered undergraduate and graduate curricula in the liberal arts and sciences, degrees in two or more professional fields, and doctoral programs in at least three academic fields.” The amendment approved in January removed the requirement for professional and doctoral programs. Universities are now defined as “including graduate programs registered in at least three of the following discipline areas: agriculture, biological sciences, business, education, engineering, fine arts, health professions, humanities, physical sciences and social sciences.”
Several other New York colleges have pending applications requesting the university designation, and a handful of former colleges have become universities since January.
“We wanted to make sure the title reflected the level of commitment to” the rigor, quality and quantity of courses offered by Dominican, Sister Mary Eileen said of the pursuit of the university designation.
Institutions outside New York that have made the change from college to university had similar motivations, marketing consultants say. But New York was the only state that required any doctorate programs, much less three, for an institution to be defined as a university.
“Over the years, whenever the topic came up, we encouraged New York State to become more like the other 49,” Sister Mary Eileen said.
Dominican, a small institution just north of New York City, is a Hispanic-serving institution. Sister Mary Eileen said her concern about how Hispanic students view the name change is due to perceptions of “college” versus “university” among people of Hispanic origin. In many countries, including in Central and South America, “college” refers to secondary education, or high school. This can be confusing to international students considering studying in the United States and makes it difficult for American colleges to recruit students from abroad.
Sister Mary Eileen said being known as a university makes “clear the level of education, particularly for our Spanish-speaking students, and it presents the offerings of this institution as more prestigious.”
When William Murphy, New York State’s deputy commissioner of higher education, recommended the amended definition in a memo to the Higher Education Committee of the Board of Regents last December, he cited “increasing competition from institutions chartered in other states recruiting students in New York, nationally and internationally, where the term ‘college’ presents a significant marketing challenge.”
Changing the requirements, which had been in place since 1969, would allow the state’s institutions “to more effectively compete and market their programs within the state, nationally and globally,” he wrote in a memo to the committee.
This was the case for Utica College in central New York, St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and Molloy College in Long Island, which all have since been officially recognized as universities. At least two private institutions in the Rochester area, St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College, have also sought permission to be designated as universities.
“For us, university status conveys greater prestige, has stronger reputational value domestically and internationally, and better represents the type of institution we are today and what we have already been in practice for many years,” a spokesperson for St. John Fisher College said in an emailed statement.
At least one public institution in New York is also considering seeking authorization to call itself a university.
SUNY Old Westbury in Long Island, one of 34 four-year institutions in the State University of New York system, still considers itself a college, but it changed its branding about eight years ago from SUNY College at Old Westbury. Michael Kinane, a college spokesperson, said formal discussions are planned for this summer on whether the institution should be designated a university.
“It has been a while since we discussed who we thought we were and what students thought about themselves,” Kinane said.
He said the goal is to strike a balance between a marketable brand, an identity that represents its presence in the SUNY system as an institution that fits the definition of “university” and the culture of a close-knit college with small classes and a connection between students and faculty members.
“We’re going to talk about what it would mean, what our history would mean and how it reflects who we are,” he said.
Dominican University officials will spend the summer removing “college” from and adding “university” to its name on everything from business cards to bank accounts to signage—including on the university’s website, which still refers to it as a college in some places.
The sign at the entrance to the university was changed on the same day the university announced the approval of the university designation.
“That was going to be first,” Sister Mary Eileen said.
The newly named university has since publicized the change, and the reception has “been very positive” among faculty members, students, alumni and the surrounding community, she said.
“They’re congratulating us,” she said, noting that the new name will not reflect negatively on the history and nature of the university. “That closeness, that level of collegiality with each other, that’s the culture of this college, and we don’t think that’s going to change.”
Thomas Hayes, dean of the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Ohio and co-founder of an education marketing company, SimpsonScarborough, said the image presented to students, faculty members, alumni, the academic community and the outside world is what historically has driven name changes, not just in New York and not just name changes from “college” to “university.”
“The idea of being a university gives the impression that a school is larger, with more breadth,” Hayes said. “That’s an indication of where you should be moving from college to university. It gives it a little more gravitas.”
The changes are not always universally welcomed. Hayes’s company worked with administrators at Loyola College in Baltimore in the late 2000s to rename the institution Loyola University of Maryland to match its expansion of program offerings. (By the time the name change became official in 2009, nearly every other institution named Loyola in the U.S. had long ago been designated as a university.)
There was significant pushback from alumni who opposed the name change, said Elizabeth Johnson, co-founder and chairperson of SimpsonScarborough.
“They thought the institution was losing its personal appeal, its small community feel,” she said.
Johnson said the distinction between “college” and “university” carries great weight in the U.S. as well as internationally. She said surveys the company has conducted with administrators, prospective students and their parents indicate “They prefer universities to colleges. They think they’re bigger, they think they’re better, they think they’re more prestigious.”