College Place, Washington, United States | Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

Just in time for fall semester, Seventh-day Adventist-owned Walla Walla College joins a number of other Adventist educational institutions around the world by declaring itself a university.

Members of the College Place, Washington-based school’s constituency unanimously voted to change Walla Walla’s name last October, but September 1 of this year marked the official switch to “university.”

Some academics believe adopting the “university” label is vital if a school expects to stay competitive, given perceptions of higher education among potential students, their parents and even future employees.

A 2005 survey of Adventist young people nationwide by the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities found 71 percent believed a university education trumped one earned at a college. Just 24 percent of Adventist high-school-age students felt colleges and universities offered equally competitive programs.

Vinita Sauder, vice president for marketing & enrollment services at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, says that research galvanized many Adventist colleges’ decisions to become universities.

Several ranking systems, such as U.S. News & Word Report’s America’s Best Colleges already classify many Adventist schools—including Walla Walla—as universities. The school, founded in 1892, has offered graduate programs in biology, education, psychology and social work for more than 20 years.

Other education leaders in the denomination have considered formal name changes unnecessary gestures.

“You basically just change a few signs and some stationary,” says Eric Anderson, president of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, explaining his “basic uneasiness” with the practice. If a school doesn’t offer an extensive graduate program, Anderson says tacking “university” to its name “may be misleading” to prospective students.

Southwestern, which swapped “college” for “university” in 1996, offers two graduate programs: education and business administration.

“I think we’re being realistic if we say our primary purpose is still to provide solid undergraduate education,” Anderson says, terming colleges the “hallmark” of Adventist academic institutions.

Anderson worries that Adventist schools, in their push for more graduate programs, may scrimp on the resources and faculty attention he believes incoming students deserve from small, undergraduate-geared campuses.

“A name does influence impressions about a school,” says Rosa Jimenez, interim vice president for university advancement at Walla Walla, but, she says, it doesn’t ostracize incoming students. Instead, “adopting a university name will open [Walla Walla] to a segment of potential students who perceive a university education to be more prestigious, and may offer more appeal to future employers.” 

International students in particular fall into that demographic, says Garland Dulan, director of the Adventist world church’s Education department. He says many governments outside the U.S. won’t recognize graduate degrees obtained from colleges.

Even when accepted, Dulan says, a degree earned at a “college” still typically connotes “high school.” That explains why Adventist-owned Avondale College in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia fields a regular stream of secondary school applications, he says.

Dulan says such mix-ups are more than just inconvenient. When a potential employer mistakes a college degree for one earned in high school, it’s difficult for students to compete in the job market back home and difficult for colleges to compete with universities in the academic market.

Jimenez says Hong Kong Adventist College has urged Walla Walla to become a university since the conception of an affiliate program in 2001. Students in Hong Kong regularly wrote Walla Walla asking the school to accelerate the name change so their degrees would garner greater respect.

However, not everyone agrees name changes are driven solely by calls for uniformly respected degrees.

When Southern Adventist University and Southwestern Adventist University became universities about a decade ago, Anderson describes the situation as “an arms race,” with both institutions vying to be the first to declare university status in hopes of bumping up enrollment.

But at Southwestern, Anderson describes enrollment as “up and down” since 1996. “The name didn’t change much,” he says. At Southern, Sauder says ten years after becoming a university, the school has experienced a “phenomenal growth spurt” of some 1,000 students. While she says the “university” label contributed to the growth, Sauder allows that Southern’s new graduate and undergraduate programs probably proved the real clincher.

Not all Adventist schools scrambled to recast themselves as universities. It wasn’t until 2005 that Angwin, California-based Pacific Union College (PUC) researched becoming a university. “With Walla Walla looking seriously at changing their name, and La Sierra [University] in the south, I was concerned with the marketing implications of being sandwiched between two universities,” PUC president Richard Osborn told the Pacific Union Recorder at the time. 

However, academic administration at PUC decided to maintain the school’s niche: undergraduate education. A switch to university status would have required adding extensive graduate and research programs, something PUC “didn’t want to do in a second-rate way,” Osborn said. “When a freshmen walks on campus, they should realize that everyone is here for them.”

But getting that student on campus in the first place is what concerns Victor Brown, vice president for admissions and marketing at Walla Walla. While Brown acknowledges a school’s name doesn’t define its quality, he says many students still hold the “misconception” that it does.

Muddling the situation, Brown says, is that the definition of a “college” has morphed from a traditional four-year college to a junior—or community—college over the years, spurring many schools to adopt the “university” label in order to distinguish themselves.

But, as Jimenez points out, it’s not just Adventist schools that are adopting official “university” status. Of Washington state’s 10 private colleges, only one remains so in name.

Semantic quibbling aside, Dulan says the “university” trend is positive—so long as colleges meet the expectations of a university designation, including original research by professors and separate graduate faculty. Schools, he says, find themselves sinking in academic quagmire only if they “change their name but not their orientation.”