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Letter to The Atlantic on colleges and universities

William & Mary submitted the following letter to The Atlantic in response to the Nov. 19 articleWhat’s the Difference Between a College and a University?" – Ed.

A College that is a University

A colleague shared Alia Wong’s piece on “What’s the Difference between a College and University?” It immediately grabbed my attention.

First, let me clarify something. The article references William & Mary and Dartmouth as “colleges” with graduate programs. Both are universities and, in fact, William & Mary has technically been a university since 1779 when legal education began and the nation’s oldest law school was established. References to William & Mary as a “university” date back to the 1700s, including the honorary degree bestowed on Thomas Jefferson in 1783.

And, as suggested, if we rely on a King’s blessing as the distinction between college and university, William & Mary can claim university status by the granting of its royal charter on Feb. 8, 1693. (We don’t.)

The question posed in the headline is a good one.

To external audiences, there is a big difference between a “college” and a “university.” In a recent perception survey, we asked prospective students if they would rather attend a “college” or a “university.” More than half (56%) responded they did not have a preference. However, those who did have a preference overwhelmingly preferred a university (35% versus 4%). Internationally, as noted in the article, a “college” is often mistaken for a prep school.

For a university that has “College” as part of its name, even one consistently ranked among the best institutions in the nation, these are real challenges.

One solution is consistent editorial style in all communications. For my institution, that means always using “William & Mary” on first reference and “university” on second reference. We recognize there is a deep fondness, particularly among our undergraduate alumni, for “the College.” Therefore, “the College” is reserved for second reference in communications to undergraduate alumni.

What is the difference between a college and a university? At William & Mary, we’ll respond with “both-and,” as our ampersand implies.

Our position as a leading liberal arts and sciences university recognizes we are both a world-class college and a superb research university.

Brian Whitson

Chief Communications Officer

William & Mary