To Woo Students, Colleges Choose Names that Sell

  • August 11, 2005

Since Beaver College in the Philadelphia suburbs became Arcadia University four years ago, applications have doubled. Western Maryland College was also looking for a boost when it became McDaniel College in 2002. And California State University, Hayward, decided last January that a name change to California State University, East Bay, would help it reach out to students in new communities.

Names have gained increasing importance in the competitive world of higher education. As colleges jockey for market share, they are looking for names that project the image they want or reflect the changes they hope to make. Trenton State College, for example, became the College of New Jersey nine years ago when it began raising admissions standards and appealing to students from throughout the state.

"All I hear in higher education is, 'Brand, brand, brand,' " said Tim Westerbeck, who specializes in branding and is managing director of Lipman Hearne, a marketing firm based in Chicago that works with universities and other nonprofit organizations. "There has been a sea change over the last 10 years. Marketing used to be almost a dirty word in higher education."

Not all efforts at name changes are successful, of course. In 1997, the New School for Social Research became New School University to reflect its growth into a collection of eight colleges, offering a list of majors that includes psychology, music, urban studies and management. But New Yorkers continued to call it the New School.

Now, after spending an undisclosed sum on an online survey and a marketing consultant's creation of "naming structures," "brand architecture" and "identity systems," the university has come up with a new name: the New School. Beginning Monday, it will phase in new logos, stationery, banners, business cards and even new names for the individual colleges, all to include the words "the New School."

"My view is that you never argue with the customer about your name," said Bob Kerrey, the university's president.

Names are important in the repositioning of colleges, but usually the process does not end there.

"The name becomes a powerful organizing principle for the product," Mr. Westerbeck, the branding expert, said. "It's the words and imagery of how the institution is going to be identified in the marketplace."

These days, he said, "every college and university is trying to articulate what makes it uniquely valuable."

The new efforts are directly tied to the growth in the number of colleges and universities, including profit-making ones like ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix, and with it, a more intense competition for students.

The idea at the New School, Mr. Kerrey said, is to unify the university's disparate units, clarify its mission and project to potential students and donors what makes the place unusual. That, he said, and the fact that New School University is not particularly good English.

Changes in names generally reveal significant shifts in how a college wants to be perceived. In altering its name from Cal State, Hayward, to Cal State, East Bay, the university hoped to project its expanding role in two mostly suburban counties east of San Francisco.

The University of Southern Colorado, a state institution, became Colorado State University at Pueblo two years ago, hoping to highlight an array of internal changes, including offering more graduate programs and setting higher admissions standards.

Beaver College turned itself into Arcadia University in 2001 for several reasons: to sever the connection with its past as a women's college, to promote its growth into a full-fledged university and, officials acknowledged, to eliminate salacious jokes about the college's old name on late-night television and "morning zoo" radio shows.

Many college officials said changing a name and image could produce substantial results. At Arcadia, in addition to the rise in applications, the average student's SAT score has increased by 60 points, Juli Roebeck, an Arcadia spokeswoman, said.

Western Maryland College, a small liberal arts college in Westminster, Md., about 30 miles from Baltimore, changed its name three years ago to McDaniel College, in honor of a former trustee. The old name misled potential students in several ways, college officials said; the college is in the central part of the state, not western Maryland, and is not part of the state university system, as many people had inferred. (The college's original name derived from the Western Maryland Railroad, which had an important terminal in Westminster.)

"We couldn't afford to have a confusing name anymore," said Joyce Muller, an associate vice president for communications and marketing.

Fund-raising and applications have increased over the last three years, Ms. Muller said, and the college has been included in college fairs to which it was once not invited.

Two New Jersey colleges changed their names in the 1990's, hoping to project new and more ambitious identities. Trenton State became the College of New Jersey, and Glassboro State became Rowan University.

Both had essentially been local teachers' colleges. Rowan, which received a $100 million gift from a local businessman named Henry M. Rowan, added an engineering program and worked to achieve a significant role in South Jersey's economic development. (Perhaps the most famous instance in which a college changed its name in gratitude to a donor came in 1924, when Trinity College in Durham, N.C., was renamed Duke University after receiving a $40 million gift from James B. Duke.)

The College of New Jersey reconceived its mission, hoping to attract superior students statewide for its liberal arts curriculum. Two measures show its success. Students in the freshman class that arrives at the end of the month had an average combined SAT score of 1310 and ranked, on average, in the top 8 percent of their high school class, Matthew Golden, a college spokesman, said.

That compares with SAT scores of 1150 and rankings in the top 20 percent of the class 10 years ago, before the name change, Mr. Golden said.

Other universities have tweaked their names, nearly always in the hope of becoming more recognizable. The State University of New York at Binghamton, which was known in the 1950's and 1960's as Harpur College, now calls itself Binghamton University, at least informally.

The other university research centers in the New York State system have also adopted what they call popular names, in addition to their formal designations. SUNY Albany now calls itself the University at Albany, for instance, while SUNY Stony Brook is known as Stony Brook University.

Another institution that kept its official designation while marketing itself under a more accessible name is the University of the South, a small liberal arts institution in Sewanee, Tenn. While that has been its name since it was founded in 1857, the university has long been known to students, alumni and others in higher education as Sewanee.

Because of the familiarity, university officials have essentially given in, said Joe Romano, a University of the South spokesman. On its Web site, the institution is identified as Sewanee in large type, with the University of the South in much smaller type below.

The New School is also surrendering to common usage, but there is more to its realignment of names. Mr. Kerrey, a former United States senator from Nebraska, said that when he became the university's president four years ago, the board told him to try to unify the university's disparate components. These include the Parsons School of Design, the Mannes College of Music, the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science and five other colleges.

And so the New School is also changing the components' names to include in each the words "The New School." Parsons, for example, will become Parsons The New School for Design and Mannes will be renamed Mannes College The New School for Music.

"I want people, when they hear the name Parsons, to understand that it's part of the New School," Mr. Kerrey said.

He acknowledged that it would take more than revised names to bring together the various colleges. Among other things, he wants to link their libraries more effectively and to encourage more students to take courses outside their own division.

Of course, renaming the university is ultimately about attracting students.

"The competition in higher education is forcing a lot of what appears to be more commercial activity," Mr. Kerrey said. "It sounds a little like it's a pizza business.

"It's not a pizza business, but we do think of our students as our most important customers. And if they are unclear about who we are, then we run the risk that we might lose potential students


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