University Status: Does It Always Matter?
Yesterday I read a news article in my local paper, the Trenton Times, that Thomas Edison State College, an adult-focused public college in New Jersey, has been renamed Thomas Edison State University. This followed recent decisions within New Jersey for two private colleges, Caldwell College and Georgian Court College to seek and become universities as well.
The newspaper article listed four conditions by which a college based in New Jersey can apply to the state’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education to receive university status. Over the previous five years such colleges must:
- Offer Bachelor’s degree programs as well as graduate studies leading to advanced degrees in at least three academic and/or professional disciplines;
- Offer and administer graduate programs that are distinctly separate from the school’s undergraduate offerings;
- Possess the financial ability as well as the facilities and equipment to support its graduate and professional programs; and,
- Be accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, incorporated within the State of New Jersey and licensed by the Secretary of Higher Education for the state.
I can understand why Thomas Edison’s administration wanted university status. Their school earned it. The student body, mainly working adults, grew to become the third-largest at a New Jersey college after Rutgers’ main campus in New Brunswick and Montclair State University.Thomas Edison grants 13 masters degrees as well as 15 post-bachelors certificates. It will launch its first doctoral program, in nursing practice, this month.
I have informally recommended Thomas Edison to working adults many times; it is a far better value than for-profit schools that claim to corner the market on convenient-to-earn degrees. I have no argument against Thomas Edison becoming a university. Comparable adult-focused public institutions such as Western Governors University have already received this status in other states.
However, I wonder whether the name “college” versus “university” really matters when it comes to undergraduate education.
Among the higher-ranked liberal arts colleges, at least four: Wesleyan (CT), Colgate (NY), Brandeis (MA) and Sewanee, the University of the South (TN) are called universities. Wesleyan grants degrees through the doctoral level, as does Brandeis. Colgate has announced that it will be opening a dental school in the future, while it also offers a distinctive Master of Arts in Teaching program. Sewanee offers a MFA in Creative Writing as well as a Master of Arts in Theology and Literature in cooperation with its own divinity school, which has a seminary.
However, there are also highly-ranked liberal arts schools that continue to call themselves colleges although they too offer advanced degrees. Bryn Mawr offers a Masters in Social Work and grants doctorates as well. Sarah Lawrence offers nine masters programs including dance/movement therapy, genetic counseling and health advocacy.
Looking at larger schools Boston College is called a college, yet it has separate schools of arts and sciences, business, education and nursing as well as graduate programs and a law school. Boston College also has around 1,500 more undergraduates, approximately 9,100 total, than its Jesuit cousin Georgetown University. There are certainly no plans for Boston College to change its name; there is already a Boston University, a larger school that offers similar academic programs.
The College of William and Mary is also called a college though it has a graduate school, a law school and a medical school. Interestingly, its recent spin-off, Christopher Newport, a former extension division, is now a university. The College of William and Mary, like Boston College, has no plans to change its name. There’s no reason to. It is known under its current name as the second-oldest college in the United States, The oldest, Harvard, calls its undergraduate division Harvard College though Harvard is incorporated as a university.
So, there are schools that can call themselves universities by virtue of their offering graduate and professional degrees that choose to be universities while there are also colleges that continue to call themselves colleges even though they could rename themselves as universities.
For an prospective undergraduate, the word “college” or “university” in the name of the school should not matter very much. What should matter is what that school could do for that person and if it can prove that it has the resources, academic and others, to help. Sometimes a school that devotes no resources to graduate education can provide a better and richer undergraduate experience than one that wants to have respected and/or prestigious graduate and professional degree programs.
If a school wants to call itself a university because it grants masters degrees, that decision is up to the state’s education department as well as the accrediting bodies for that school and its master’s programs. But the school cannot and should not market that its undergraduate experience is “better” because it is a university instead of a college.