What’s in a name? In the case of higher education, two things: status and students. And in their effort to attract those two vital commodities, schools of higher learning are not above tinkering with the title of the old alma mater.

Often the object of their attention is the designation of the school as a college or a university. While the terms are often used almost interchangeably, size and structure generally set the university apart from the traditional liberal arts college. A university is usually thought to contain a certain number of undergraduate majors, several distinct schools or colleges of study, and graduate-level offerings. And with the word come images of high-tech research and academic glamour.

But no definition is strictly enforced by accrediting bodies. The result is a sometimes confusing list of colleges and universities (for example, 13 of the approximately 75 members of the Christian College Coalition use the university label). And while the words may do little to indicate the true size or character of an institution, they do reveal several trends at work today in Christian higher education.

A little more than one year ago, Marion College became Indiana Wesleyan University. Indiana was chosen to give the school a “more regional image,” and Wesleyan to “help focus back on our roots,” said President Jim Barnes.

University reflected the growth of the school. About five years ago, 1,100 students attended; last fall more than 2,300 were in class. Several graduate programs were also added during those years.

The university model of several distinct schools provided the best way for Indiana Wesleyan to handle the growing number of “nontraditional students”: adults in their 30s and 40s, starting new careers or pursuing advanced degrees such as a master of business administration (MBA). Such students account for almost all of the school’s growth, and a traditional liberal arts college structure would have had no place for them, Barnes said. Most take classes in evenings at off-campus locations; many are enrolled in the MBA program.

International Understanding

In many Asian and European countries, college denotes what Americans commonly refer to as high school. So to clarify its role in higher education, California’s Azusa Pacific, which enrolls some 350 international students, changed its name in 1981 from “College” to “University.” The school also restructured at that time, said outgoing President Paul Sago, and regained “more of a sense of community” in each of its six schools, a spirit that had been pushed aside by growth.

Article continues below

Schools such as Seattle Pacific, Liberty, Southern Nazarene, Anderson, and Dallas Baptist inserted “university” into their titles in recent years.

Some schools, though they have grown in size and structure to fit a university model, are content to continue under the college label. “Our reputation as an academic institution is solid, and we are able to attract the students we need,” said Wheaton College President Richard Chase. “Probably a good portion of our alumni would be very dissatisfied if we changed the name.”

Chase, in fact, did oversee a name change at Biola University in La Mirada, California, while president there from 1970 to 1982. Founded in 1908 as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Biola College was by the late 1970s an institution of 2,000 undergraduates and included Talbot Theological Seminary and the Rosemead School of Psychology, which offered doctoral studies. Most people, however, continued to identify the school with its Bible institute past. The name “undersold” the school, Chase said, “and in tough [student] recruiting times, image means a lot.”

In some cases, a founder’s vision of establishing a university was never fulfilled by the brick-and-mortar reality of the school, and tradition merely kept the name alive. Such is the case at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, said Bill Ringenberg, chairman of Taylor’s history department. Since it adopted the name in 1890, the school has considered and rejected a name change several times.

At Bryan College, however, tradition gave way. Founded as William Jennings Bryan University, the liberal arts school changed its name to “College” in the 1930s.

Educators point with concern to some schools whose renaming as a university reflects little more than printing new letterhead. But most feel the true quality of the product—education—can easily be seen behind the label.

Indiana Wesleyan’s name change came with a whole new “identity” for the school, Barnes said. Everything from the official seal to the school mascot was redone.

“It was an opportunity to reassess and reaffirm our historic mission,” Barnes said, which includes equipping Christians “for lifelong learning and service.” So adult education, and the change to a university that accompanied it, is a “strengthening of that mission, rather than a change,” he said.

With only a year and a half gone by, Barnes is pleased with what he sees at his university. “Asking ourselves who we are and what we are about was a very healthy part of the process,” he said. “Answering those questions was in a large sense more important than the actual name.”

Article continues below

By Ken Sidey.

Canada’s Evangelical Schools Grow, Change

Twenty-five years ago a Canadian student seeking an evangelical university or seminary education had few options. In what was often lamented as a Christian “brain drain,” legions of such students headed south to the United States each year to pursue advanced schooling.

But that picture has altered as evangelical schools have adapted to meet new demands. Today there are more than 100 Bible colleges, liberal arts schools, and seminaries in Canada.

On Canada’s west coast, Trinity Western University provides an example of the turnaround of Christian education in Canada. Beginning in the early 1900s, Canadian evangelical universities had been secularized, one by one. But TWU, now owned by the Evangelical Free Church, enrolls more than 1,200 students on a 28-year-old rural campus near Vancouver.

Also in British Columbia, Regent College, a 20-year-old evangelical graduate school affiliated with the University of British Columbia, recently dedicated a new $5 million campus. One-fifth of the funds came from Hong Kong immigrant and evangelical philanthropist David Lam, who is now British Columbia’s lieutenant-governor.

Church-state relations, however, do pose a problem for some institutions. For example, in the province of Ontario, a 20-year-old government policy does not allow religious colleges to grant nonreligious degrees. That restriction has had a limiting effect on Redeemer College near Hamilton, 40 miles west of Toronto. But Justin Cooper, Redeemer’s academic vice-president, says change in the policy might be coming.

One example of a Bible school stepping up to college status is found at Ontario Bible College. Begun as Toronto Bible Training School in 1894, OBC has grown and adapted to its evolving city. About 180 different languages are spoken in Toronto, notes college and seminary president William McRae, making it one of North America’s finest urban ministry workshops.

The formation of Ontario Theological Seminary in 1976 also reflects the character of the city. Of its 400 students, about one-quarter are Asian.

Three years ago, Canadian Theological Seminary, on the campus of Canadian Bible College in Regina, Saskatchewan, became the country’s first evangelical seminary to offer a doctorate in ministry. (Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia will soon become the second.)

Though Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec, historically dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, holds far fewer evangelical schools than other areas, evangelicals there have seen recent exponential growth in their churches. Three schools, the French Baptists’ Centre d’Etudes Theologiques Evangeliques, the Mennonite Brethren Institut Biblique Laval, and the Reformed Institut Farel are working closely among themselves and with universities in other parts of Canada to fill the need for evangelical education.

By Lloyd Mackey.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.