About Me

Find out more about me here.

10 September 2010

The Labeling of Elite Liberal Arts "Colleges"

The school where I work, officially "Georgia College & State University," is ironically taking procedural steps to unofficially "re-brand" the school as simply "Georgia College"--sans the "& State University." You can read more about it here. I had heard from colleagues about a previous and contentious official move to change the school name to just "Georgia College." This initiative was met with a lot of anger from students and alumni who argued that, without the "university" part of the label, it sounded like a junior or community "college." The first time I heard this, I was a bit incredulous as the reasoning seemed backward. I informally chatted with three of my classes today[1], and they all agreed that "university" sounded prestigious while "college" sounded cheap. I decided to look into this a little further.

The stated vision of the college begins as follows:

As the state's designated public liberal arts university, Georgia College & State University is committed to combining the educational experiences typical of esteemed private liberal arts colleges with the affordability of public higher education.
What about these typical esteemed liberal arts colleges? Admittedly, the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are problematic, but because they are partially based on the opinions of the administrators of these liberal arts institutions themselves, they can at least serve as an approximation of a list of national elite liberal arts colleges.

Of the top 100 ranked liberal arts colleges, 80% use the word "college" in their official name. All of the top 10 are "colleges." [2][3][4] This raises several questions for me. Why don't the students and alumni here believe that "college" is more prestigious than "university?" Do they not understand or agree with our liberal arts mission? Is it perhaps the influence of the other nearby state schools like the University of Georgia or the notoriety of other nationally recognized "universities" (and their athletic programs)?

[1] Two are freshman-level, and one is junior/senior-level.
[2] The most highly ranked non-"college" comes in at 12.
[3] 17% are universities, 2% are academies, and 1% is an institute.
[4] Among the top 100 ranked institutions the U.S. News & World Report labels "national universities" (i.e. research-1) only 3% primarily use the word "college" in their official name.


  1. Well, since we belong to COPLAC, it only seems right.

    I think you last reason is the most accurate one. I also think that people in the Southeast are less familiar than, say, people in the Northeast, with the idea of a liberal arts college.

    I hope it goes through soon. I know the President has been working on this for a while (look at how the & State University part is deemphasized on the school's website). I think it's cumbersome, mellifluous, confusing, and in the end, embarrassing.

  2. I think that there is a big difference in exposure between the top national universities and the top liberal arts schools. If you told a random person on the street that you went to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale they would likely be impressed. If you told the same person that you went to Williams, Amherst, or Swarthmore, they are more likely to ask, "where?" The high status of these colleges, then, seems to be more localized. Given this it is somewhat strange that so many people in the US refer to going to "college" while many around the world refer to going to "university."