How Does a College Become a University

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the transition of a college into a university is a significant milestone that marks a period of growth and expansion in both academic offerings and organisational capabilities. 

This article delves into the multifaceted process through which a college ascends to university status, exploring the various criteria and changes required for such a transformation. 

From developing comprehensive graduate programs to meeting rigorous accreditation standards, this transition is an intricate journey reflecting an institution’s commitment to broadening its educational horizons, enhancing research capabilities, and elevating its academic standing.

Understanding the Basics: Colleges vs. Universities

At their core, both colleges and universities are institutions dedicated to higher learning and granting undergraduate degrees. The primary distinction lies in the scope of their offerings and their organizational structure.

Degree Programs and Academic Scope:

Colleges: Primarily focused on undergraduate education, colleges offer associate degrees (in the case of community colleges) or bachelor’s degrees. They may have a concentrated academic scope, such as liberal arts, engineering, or specific vocational training.

Universities: Offer a broader range of programs, including both undergraduate (bachelor’s degrees) and a wide array of graduate programs (master’s and doctoral degrees). This expansive academic scope covers a variety of disciplines and advanced research opportunities.

Research and Specialized Schools:

Colleges: Generally, more teaching-focused with limited emphasis on research. Most colleges do not have separate schools for specialized fields like law, medicine, or business.

Universities: Often heavily research-oriented and may include various specialized schools or colleges within the university, such as law schools, medical schools, business schools, and engineering schools, facilitating advanced studies and research in these fields.

Size and Student Enrollment:

Colleges: Usually smaller in terms of student population, which can contribute to a more intimate academic environment with smaller class sizes and potentially more personalized attention from faculty.

Universities: Typically have a larger student body, which may result in larger class sizes. The diverse student population often includes a substantial number of graduate students alongside undergraduates.

Faculty and Teaching Focus:

Colleges: Faculty members are often more focused on teaching and mentorship. The smaller academic community can allow for more direct interaction between students and professors.

Universities: Faculty members may balance teaching with research responsibilities. This dual focus can provide students with exposure to cutting-edge research and developments in their field of study, though it may also mean less personalized attention compared to a college setting.

Resources and Facilities:

Colleges: Resources might be more limited compared to universities, particularly in terms of research facilities. However, colleges often offer strong support services for undergraduate students.

Universities: Generally have more extensive resources, including advanced research laboratories, extensive libraries, and a wider range of extracurricular opportunities. 

This includes access to more diverse and specialized equipment and facilities for higher-level academic and professional research.

The Transformation Process: College to University

To transition from a college to a university, an institution must meet specific criteria over a defined period, usually at least five years. These criteria include:

Establishment of Graduate Programs:

To evolve into a university, an institution must develop robust graduate programs distinct from undergraduate offerings. These programs should offer advanced study opportunities, leading to master’s and doctoral degrees. 

A dedicated administrative structure is essential to oversee these programs, ensuring they meet academic and research standards distinct from undergraduate curricula. 

The establishment of these programs signifies a college’s commitment to advanced academic inquiry and contributes to its intellectual diversity.

Diverse Academic Offerings:

A university is expected to provide advanced degree programs in at least three different academic or professional fields. This diversity in academic offerings reflects the institution’s breadth and depth in higher education. 

It’s not just about the number of programs but the variety of disciplines covered, ranging from the arts and humanities to sciences and professional studies. 

This diversity enables the institution to cater to a broader range of academic interests and research areas, fostering a comprehensive educational environment.

Rigorous Accreditation Standards:

Accreditation is a critical factor in the transformation from college to university. The institution must earn accreditation from recognized bodies, demonstrating adherence to high standards of education, faculty qualification, research capabilities, and academic resources. 

Accreditation ensures the institution meets nationally or internationally recognized criteria, providing assurance of quality and enabling the institution to compete academically on a broader stage.

Adequate Resource Allocation:

Transitioning into a university demands significant resource allocation to support both undergraduate and graduate programs. This includes financial investments in academic facilities, research laboratories, technology, library resources, and faculty development. 

Adequate funding ensures the institution can maintain high standards in teaching, research, and student services. It also involves investing in the infrastructure necessary to foster a productive learning and research environment.

Research Infrastructure and Support:

A university-level institution is often expected to engage in significant research activities. Developing a robust research infrastructure, including state-of-the-art labs, research libraries, and support staff, is crucial. 

This infrastructure should facilitate cutting-edge research, scholarship, and innovation. Additionally, the institution should provide support for faculty and student research, including funding, mentorship programs, and collaboration opportunities.

Qualified and Diverse Faculty:

The faculty at a university must not only be highly qualified in terms of their academic credentials but also diverse in their areas of expertise. This diversity allows the university to offer a wide range of programs and specializations. 

Faculty members should be engaged in ongoing research and scholarship, contributing to the institution’s academic prestige and keeping the curriculum up-to-date with the latest advancements in their respective fields.

Expanded Administrative Structure:

As a college grows into a university, its administrative structure must also expand and specialize. 

This involves the establishment of various departments and offices dedicated to different aspects of university operations, including graduate studies, research, student affairs, and international programs. 

The expanded administration is essential for effectively managing the increased complexity of a university, ensuring that both academic and operational needs are met efficiently.

Enhanced Student Services and Opportunities:

Universities typically provide a wider range of services and opportunities for students compared to colleges. 

This includes comprehensive career services, more extensive extracurricular activities, opportunities for international study and research, and support for student-led initiatives. 

The university environment should foster not only academic growth but also personal development, preparing students for diverse career paths and global citizenship.

Case Studies and Examples: Transition from College to University

Elmhurst University, located in the suburbs of Chicago, and Dominican University in New York are notable examples of institutions that have successfully transitioned from college to university status, illustrating the process of meeting and exceeding the criteria typically required for such a transformation.

Elmhurst University:

Originally known as Elmhurst College, this institution underwent a significant transformation to become Elmhurst University. The change, effective from July 2020, was more than a mere rebranding; it reflected a substantial expansion in the university’s academic offerings and capabilities. 

Elmhurst had already established a range of graduate programs in various fields, adhering to the criterion of offering advanced degree programs in multiple disciplines. This expansion was coupled with an increase in research activities and resources, aligning with the expectations for a university-level institution.

Furthermore, Elmhurst University focused on enhancing its resources and facilities to support this academic growth. The institution had to ensure that its infrastructure, faculty, and administrative systems were upgraded to manage the increased complexity and breadth of a university. 

These efforts were recognized through the necessary accreditation processes, affirming Elmhurst’s commitment to maintaining high standards in higher education.

Dominican University:

Dominican University’s journey from college to university is another example of organizational evolution. Formerly Dominican College, this New York-based institution’s transition was partly facilitated by legislative changes in the state. 

New York adjusted its criteria for university status, allowing institutions with a more diverse range of registered graduate programs to reclassify as universities.

Dominican University capitalized on this opportunity by expanding its academic portfolio and emphasizing graduate education. The university developed graduate programs in areas such as nursing and physical therapy, meeting the requirement of offering advanced degrees in various fields. 

This academic expansion was complemented by strengthening research capabilities and resources, necessary for a university’s profile. Dominican University also worked on its administrative and infrastructural development to support a larger, more diverse student body and faculty, integral to a university’s operation.

Both Elmhurst and Dominican Universities’ transitions are prime examples of how institutions evolve to meet the dynamic requirements of higher education. Their journeys involved strategic planning, resource allocation, academic expansion, and meeting rigorous accreditation standards, reflecting the comprehensive nature of transitioning from a college to a university.

Global Perspectives on the Distinction Between Colleges and Universities

Globally, the terms “college” and “university” hold different connotations and are used in various contexts, illustrating the diversity in educational systems across the world. 

In many countries, particularly in regions influenced by the British educational model, the term ‘college’ often refers to institutions providing secondary education or vocational training. 

It’s not uncommon for what Americans would consider a high school or vocational training center to be labeled a ‘college’ in these countries.

On the other hand, a ‘university’ universally denotes a higher education institution that offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Universities are typically larger institutions focusing on a broad spectrum of academic fields, often including extensive research facilities and a variety of graduate-level degrees. 

In contrast to the more specialized or limited scope of colleges, universities are recognized for their comprehensive curriculum and the depth of their academic inquiry, providing a broader educational perspective and advanced academic and professional qualifications. 

This distinction underscores the diverse educational structures and terminologies prevalent in different parts of the world, reflecting cultural and historical influences in the realm of education.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Makes a College into a University?

The transformation of a college into a university is primarily driven by a significant expansion in its educational offerings and organizational complexity. Key factors include the establishment of a range of graduate programs distinct from undergraduate courses, a diversification of academic disciplines, and a robust administrative structure. 

The institution must also meet strict accreditation standards, demonstrating high-quality education and research capabilities. This change is often accompanied by increased resources, such as more advanced research facilities and a broader faculty base, to support a more extensive range of academic pursuits.

At What Point Does a College Become a University?

A college typically becomes a university after it has successfully met certain criteria over a sustained period, usually at least five years. 

This includes developing graduate programs in a minimum of three distinct academic fields, undergoing rigorous accreditation processes, and significantly enhancing its resources and infrastructure. 

Once these conditions are met and recognized by the relevant educational authorities or accreditation bodies, the college can officially reclassify and operate as a university.

Why Are Colleges Switching to Universities?

Colleges often switch to university status to reflect their expanded academic capabilities and to attract a broader student base. This change signals a higher level of educational offering, including more diverse and advanced degree programs. 

Additionally, being designated as a university can enhance the institution’s prestige, potentially attracting more research opportunities, partnerships, and funding. This shift also aligns the institution with the global understanding of higher education structures, where universities are often perceived as offering a more comprehensive and research-focused education.

Is Harvard a University or a College?

Harvard is a university, formally known as Harvard University. It is one of the most prestigious and well-known higher education institutions globally. Harvard University encompasses several schools and colleges, including the renowned undergraduate liberal arts college, Harvard College. 

This structure allows Harvard University to offer a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs, making it a comprehensive university with extensive research and academic capabilities.


Throughout this article, we have journeyed through the complex and transformative process that enables a college to become a university. 

This metamorphosis involves more than just a change of name; it encompasses the establishment of diverse graduate programs, adherence to stringent accreditation criteria, allocation of substantial resources, and an expansion of academic and research facilities. 

As we have seen, this evolution signifies a college’s advancement towards greater academic diversity, research prominence, and a more comprehensive educational offering. The transition from a college to a university is indeed a testament to an institution’s growth, adaptability, and unwavering dedication to higher education excellence.


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