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Small colleges hope university status will boost their fortunes

Lasell College in Newton will convert into a university.
Lasell College in Newton will convert into a university. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Can a one-word tweak spell the difference between a bustling campus and shuttered classrooms?

An increasing number of higher education institutions in Massachusetts are betting that dropping “college” from their name and transforming themselves into universities will be the key to their long-term survival.

Lasell College in Newton announced last week that it had received approval from the state to convert to a university — a status change aimed both at elevating its reputation among older learners and international students and at insulating it from the enrollment declines and pricing pressures that have felled several other small, private institutions in New England.

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Lasell joins a string of other institutions that have ditched “college” in favor of “university,” in the hopes that the grander connotations of a larger institution with more options will ultimately lure students to campus.

In the past decade, Bentley University, Simmons University, Western New England University, and Bay Path University have made the switch. Assumption College in Worcester will become a university in the 2020-21 school year.

“It’s more attractive,” said Michael B. Alexander, Lasell’s president. The university conversion is “the next step in a natural evolution,” of Lasell, he said.

It sets Lasell, a onetime women’s seminary, on a path to becoming a “strong and more prominent” institution, Alexander said.

Lasell enrolls about 2,100 students, including about 440 graduate students, and Alexander said he wants to double the number earning master’s degrees. As Lasell University, the school will make its graduate offerings more obvious to potential students, he said.

Lasell also plans to partner with more businesses to offer specialized training in areas such as hospitality and health sciences, ambitions that will be lifted with a university designation, Alexander said.

Whether the cachet of a university title can actually boost the trajectory of a school remains unclear.

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“The change of name makes people recognize that the institution has graduate programs who might not have known otherwise. And it probably is done in part hoping that this designation confers prestige,” said Virginia Sapiro, a Boston University political science professor who is working on a history of US higher education. “Whether that is true is dubious.”

To become a university in Massachusetts, an institution must offer graduate programs in at least four distinct professional fields of study. It’s a benchmark that several colleges already meet, even if they don’t market themselves as universities.

Other colleges, even if they have robust graduate programs, are in no rush to order new letterhead and signs. Wentworth Institute of Technology, for instance, has been granted university status, though it has maintained its existing name.

Smith College, Boston College, and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire are well known for both their undergraduate and graduate degree programs, but none has expressed interest in a university makeover.

Many smaller colleges don’t have that widespread reputation, and this is a way to stand out, college presidents said.

“We’re laying the foundation for future growth and sustainability in the face of the challenges,” said Francesco Cesareo, the president of Assumption College.

And those challenges are significant.

Across New England, small, private colleges are shuttering or fighting for survival as enrollments decline and finances falter. Newbury College in Brookline closed this year, as did three schools in Vermont: Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph. Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts is frantically trying to raise millions to keep that school afloat for the long term. And in 2018, Mount Ida College in Newton, which at one point considered a merger with Lasell, abruptly closed after plans to combine the two colleges fell apart.

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Assumption, a 2,430-student campus in Worcester, began considering converting to a university several years ago in the face of these headwinds, Cesareo said.

For example, enrollment at Assumption dropped from its peak of nearly 2,880 in 2008 even as it increased the amount of grants and financial aid it offered undergraduate students to attend, according to federal data.

Assumption will be restructuring and expanding its programs into specific schools, adding administrative positions, such as deans, to the campus, and expanding its athletics offerings, as part of the university conversion. A donor gave the college more than $1 million to help pay for the changes, Cesareo said.

The college hopes that as a university it will attract more students, especially internationally, and foster more pride and greater donations from alumni, who may be reluctant to donate to a business department but would be willing to give to a school of business, he said.

Overseas students, who are appealing to institutions since they pay more to attend, are familiar with the university label, while colleges suggest more vocational-type education in many countries, experts said.

That can make it more difficult for American colleges to explain their value and offerings when they are trying to recruit internationally, said Benjamin Waxman, chief executive of Intead, a Salem firm that helps colleges and universities with their global branding.

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“It’s one less hurdle,” Waxman said. “That explanation doesn’t need to happen if you have university after your name. . . . The term ‘college’ doesn’t hold any prestige internationally.”

At Lasell, where about 7 percent of students are international, primarily from Saudi Arabia and China, officials hope that the university tag will attract more applicants from abroad and ensure that those who come freshman year will stick around through graduation, Alexander said.

Lasell estimates that it loses about 40 percent of international students after the first year, when they transfer to larger American universities in the Boston area or elsewhere.

“We’ve been told, ‘You’ll get more students, and keep more students,’ ” Alexander said.

For Simmons University, the transformation of its campus last year into four distinct colleges has helped recruit a higher caliber of administrators to the school and increased faculty collaboration across fields, said Katie Conboy, the provost.

Whether it will attract more students, bring in additional money, and ultimately help the university withstand the fiscal and demographic pressures is less certain.

Simmons revealed this summer that it would eliminate pay increases and reduce retirement matches for employees in an effort to cut costs. The school exceeded its expectations for undergraduate enrollment this upcoming fall but is forecasting enrollment declines in graduate and online programs, according to university officials.

Conboy said she expects the conversion to ultimately benefit Simmons as it tries to compete in the crowded Boston higher education market and eventually pitch itself to international students.

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“It’s really hard to say anything yet,” Conboy said. “But we know this positions us differently.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.