By Christian Loeffler
Local colleges such as Seton Hill, Chatham, and Carlow have changed their names from “college” to “university” since the turn of the century. But is there really a difference between the college and university labels?
John Spurlock, professor of history at Seton Hill University, stated that the word “college” was traditionally the general term for all education that took place beyond secondary high school in the United States.
“As these colleges got bigger and became associated with other schools, then they moved toward a more ‘universal’ vision of their mission,” Spurlock explained.
Spurlock stated that by the 1980s, university status really meant an organization that included several colleges and that the status presumed a strong orientation toward research and a variety of graduate programs.
“Many smaller schools moved toward seeking ‘university’ [around the same time in order to show that] their size and mission had changed [or to gain] a comparative advantage in attracting students,” Spurlock said.
In terms of Seton Hill, Spurlock explained that a change in the mission of Seton Hill triggered the switch from college to university. He stated that the institution opened enrollment to male students in all programs and had many graduate programs and pre-professional areas beyond what had been the “traditional mission in liberal arts education.”
John Smetanka, vice president of academic affairs and academic dean, stated there really is no hard-fast rule saying that “you have to be a college and you have to be a university,”
“It really boils down to what the institution feels is the best name,” he said.
Smetanka said that even institutions larger than SVC, such as Dartmouth, still use the college label. In China, he explained, the term “college” refers to more of a high school program as opposed to a post-secondary program. And in other countries, Smetanka stated, a college is not seen as prestigious as a university.
The name change discussion is brought up “on some level almost every year” and “always in terms of a marketing decision,” he said.
Smetanka explained that Saint Vincent would need to go through the state and through accrediting bodies to get the permission to make a name change. However, he said, there are financial concerns involved in changing an institution’s name, such as signage needing changed in various forms, including institutional representation on pamphlets, letterheads, and websites, among others.
But in that regard, Smetanka said, “we have a bit of an advantage here at Saint Vincent.”
Smetanka explained that a large portion of signage refers to the college as just “Saint Vincent” because the name encompasses the archabbey, the parish, the college, and the seminary.
He said a name change is possible under the right conditions, such as a substantial growth of graduate programs. However, he said, the college is dedicated to undergraduate education and it is the college’s “primary reason for being.”
“[The name] carries forward the tradition of the institution,” Smetanka said. “We are the only Saint Vincent College.”
Smetanka stated that people want to see a name that they recognize and associate with on diplomas and elsewhere.
Spurlock said that he thinks something will be lost in the self-concept that makes Saint Vincent College special if the school pursues a university designation.
“It will still be special in other ways; that, I’m sure of. But I don’t think it will be the same place,” said Spurlock.