Colonial Americans disregarded that distinction when establishing the United States’ first postsecondary institutions: They were designated as colleges rather than universities, in part because of limited resources and because they didn’t need the King to authorize them to grant degrees, according to Johann Neem, a professor at Western Washington University who studies the history of American education. The terms blurred further with the creation of research universities during World War II, many of which, like colleges, focused on a liberal-arts education.
Read: The triumph of America’s research university
The confusion that exists in the U.S. today was, in other words, baked in from the beginning. While educators may fuss over the exact criteria, many counselors and higher-education administrators who reached out to me stressed that few students give much thought to the distinction between a college and a university. Notably, a spokesman for the ACT told me in an email that while the organization understands there’s a difference between a college and a university, that difference “isn’t really something that [the ACT] focuses on.” After all, “ACT scores are used for admissions … by both types of institutions.”
Yet even if they don’t know the technical difference, many people, if only subconsciously, do think of a university as somehow higher caliber than a college. “There’s prestige associated with that more formal-sounding name,” says Teresa Valerio Parrot, a communications professional who works with higher-education institutions. And so the branding matters a great deal to schools. According to Valerio Parrot, most U.S. higher-education institutions have a style guide with rules on how to refer to themselves. (Depending on the school’s image, university might not be a desirable label: Schools that want to promote a liberal-arts identity may prefer the connotations of college.)
A name change like Lasell’s, though “not inexpensive,” according to Alexander, is a marketing investment. It has “promotional value,” he said. The school hired consultants to help with the marketing rollout, including a new logo and tagline; created new university gear and stationery; and is in the process of replacing all the campus’s signs.
This investment, according to Alexander, is already producing results. Many alumni (read: prospective donors) have since requested updated diplomas—and its website “experienced its highest organic-search months ever this past September and October,” according to a spokesperson. The university announced the name change in mid-August.
Yet the changes at Lasell and elsewhere will likely fly under the radar of everyday Americans. After all, many journalists like me who cover education (the Chronicle notwithstanding) tend to treat college and university as synonyms, at least when referring to higher education writ large. And for what it’s worth, The Atlantic’s copy editors approve: “We use them interchangeably, often just for word variation,” Janice Wolly, our copy chief, told me.