college name

Rebranding Community Colleges With New Names

By Rebecca L. Weber

Five years on, Bellevue College’s new name and reputation are well recognized

In an attempt to enroll more students and better meet their needs, an increasing number of colleges are changing their missions, their focuses — and their names. The name changes usually come with growth, according to Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, as community colleges become state colleges, and state colleges expand to university status.

That was the case with Bellevue College, in Bellevue, Washington, whose offerings and students are somewhere on the continuum between a two-year community college and an urban state college. In 2009, shortly before awarding its first Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) degree, the institution once known as Bellevue Community College streamlined its name. So far, 276 BAS degrees have been awarded, primarily in radiation, imaging science and interior design.

“We’re still a community college,” says Dave Rule, Bellevue’s president. That’s because of the college’s open-enrollment policy and its mission to serve the education needs of those who live locally. But “the term ‘community college’ is so linked to the idea of a two-year degree or a transfer degree,” Rule says, that it made sense to change the name along with its degree offerings.

From Bellevue’s campus, one can see Seattle’s Space Needle, an icon of the Pacific Northwest’s tech hub. “We are downtown Microsoft. T-Mobile headquarters are less than a half-mile away,” Rule says. Amazon and Boeing are also nearby. Bellevue’s STEM focus is an outgrowth of the industry’s demand for highly skilled workers: These employers are looking for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in computer science, not graduates with associate degrees. In this area, Rule says, “the growth of the baccalaureate is essential.”

Marketing a new college name

All sorts of items needed to be changed: letterhead, hats, highway signs. “You have to have your marketing plan in place, all your logos ready to go, T-shirts in the bookstore,” Rule says. “Our messaging is that we are still the community’s college. We are still serving the local community. The dropping of the term is an indication of growth in program options.”

An early step in the name-change process involves a copyright search, a lesson Rule’s college learned the hard way. Once upon a time, Bellevue University in Nebraska was Bellevue College — and that institution still owned the name. It took the new Bellevue College more than a year to untangle the rights.

Name-change recognition is high

Although the name change trend is a national one, the uptake in Washington state has been particularly high. Centralia, Peninsula and Olympic community colleges changed their names before Bellevue did. And, more recently, Seattle’s community colleges, all of which offer a BAS degree, have dropped the word “community” from their names. The board of trustees did the same, becoming Seattle College District.

A recent survey found that 75 percent of respondents in the area say “Bellevue College,” “Bellevue,” or “BC,” while a quarter of the respondents still use “community.”

Conveying the new name is a simpler task than communicating complex changes in programs and degrees. Bellevue College is accredited as a four-year school. But half of the survey respondents perceive it as a “local two-year college offering a few bachelor’s degrees,” while another quarter think it’s a “local four year-college offering certificates and two-year degrees.”

The unprompted name or acronym people use is a good marker of their associations with the college. Among Bellevue graduates from a decade ago or longer, it’s not uncommon to hear “Bellevue Community College.”

“I never correct them,” Rule says. “We’re still the community’s college.”

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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