RALEIGH — St. Augustine’s College will become St. Augustine’s University on Aug. 1.
Under blue-and-white balloons as cheerleaders and marching band musicians stood by, college leaders said it was time for St. Aug’s, founded in 1867, to establish a new identity.
Dianne Boardley Suber, president of the historically-black college for 12 years, said the trustees had considered the possibility for a couple of years, but zeroed in on the goal last fall.
“We determined that we were ready,” she said, “and that this opportunity would allow us to grow unbridled, like the sky is the limit. It seemed time.”
All the elements were in place, she said – fiscal solvency, stable enrollment and increasing programs.
St. Aug’s joins a rising number of colleges that see branding and recruiting advantages in becoming universities. Peace College, which is becoming coed this fall, changed its name to William Peace University.
Suber said the news was more than a name change. University status will more closely fit with other initiatives at St. Aug’s, including a curriculum overhaul, a focus on its strongest academic programs and the development of a physician’s assistant master’s degree, which could launch as early as 2014.
The change also signals a new way of doing business, she said. “As we build programs, we’ve got to look at building faculty,” Suber added. “We’ve got to look at what it means to move your athletics program to the next level, what it really takes to be a contender. It means some difference in budgeting strategies ... focusing in on the concept that we really can’t be all things to all folks. So what are we going to do that we will be able to excel in?”
St. Aug’s has established three areas of focus that it calls “Centers of Excellence.” One is forensic discovery, which encompasses forensic science, accounting and psychology. Another is applied medical sciences, aimed at preparing students for health careers. A third is sports and athletic facilities management that could lead students to careers in the “front office” of professional or collegiate sports organizations.
The college has also added adult education programs at other locations – a step that many small colleges have taken to shore up their finances. The college has about 1,500 undergraduates, and Suber envisions growth to 1,650 or 1,700 students eventually.
Students cheered the announcement. They milled around the water fountain in front of the campus library, where cake and lemonade were served.
Jonathan Dockery, a junior from Taylorsville, likes the idea of seeing “university” on his diploma, because “it might hold a little more weight,” he said.
Sandra Clemons White, an alumna and college employee, said she expected most alumni to embrace the new name. “I’m just elated the opportunity has taken place in my lifetime,” said White, a 1975 graduate who now manages the college’s adult learning program in Henderson.
The university name will be more appealing to students of today, White said.
That could help St. Aug’s, which has struggled to keep students enrolled until they earn a diploma. The college has a six-year graduation rate of 23 percent, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education. Of students who entered as freshmen in 2010, 51 percent returned for the second year, according to St. Aug’s.
Across the country, institutions are dropping the “college” moniker mainly for marketing reasons. Elon University made the change in 2001 after years of consideration, said Daniel Anderson, vice president for university communications.
People don’t realize that there are no set criteria in most states for what constitutes a college or university, Anderson said. It’s up to the discretion of the institution. “You look at things like, who are your admissions competitors? What other schools are in your competitive set?” Anderson said. “Prospective students are choosing among you and other schools. What are they called?”
The answer for Elon was obvious. Most of Elon’s peers were universities. “We were out of range because of the size and the complexity” of Elon, Anderson said.
Among students, there was little resistance to the name change. Among Elon graduates, older alumni were more supportive than younger ones, who worried that the culture of the place would be lost. “We had to reassure people that that name change didn’t signal a change in the nature of the institution,” Anderson said. “Here we are 11 years later, and people still call Elon a small place and close knit.”
That’s important to St. Aug’s students, too. “When you come to a small college, it’s not much to look at, but the education is top notch,” said Demi Broadhurst, a freshman from Raleigh.
Kala Kea, a freshman from Wilmington, said she hoped to see new opportunities and campus improvements at the university come fall. “I’m very excited,” she said, “because we needed this change.”