What’s in a name?

MSC sign
Administrators at Mesa State College in Grand Junction are considering changing the name of the institution as part of efforts to recruit more students, including those from outside Colorado. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

What’s in a name?

More than what Shakespeare suggests when it comes to colleges, recruiting students and even addressing funding concerns.

To help compensate for dwindling state funding, Mesa State College in Grand Junction has pumped up efforts to bring in more out-of-state students, along with the higher tuition they pay. And part of those recruitment efforts could include a new name for Mesa State.

“One of the reasons to consider a name change is if the state goes the direction people fear, state funding is going to drop further,” says Rick Taggart, executive director of marketing and recruitment at Mesa State. “We have to make it up through tuition or you continue to cut expenses.”

In-state students pay about $6,000 a year in tuition and fees to attend Mesa State, while out-of-state students pay about $14,000. Mesa State already has reduced expenses to the lowest level of any state college in Colorado, Taggart adds.

The situation has become so critical Mesa State President Tim Foster predicts state funding for higher education could disappear in three years if national health care legislation isn’t changed in the meantime.  Most states anticipate their contributions to Medicare and Medicaid will drastically increase by 2014 due to provisions of health care legislation that require that every American be covered by health insurance in one form or another.

Rick Taggart
Rick Taggart

In Colorado, state funding for higher education already has dropped significantly in the past decade. Ten years ago, the state paid more than 60 percent of the cost per student at state colleges. Today, it’s about 20 percent. Students, their families and philanthropic organizations fund the remainder. Financial institutions participate by providing student loans.

In an effort to determine how to better recruit students, Taggart and staff members conducted a survey of 2,500 potential college students or their parents in Colorado as well as in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. The survey attempted to get a handle on the perception of Mesa State programs, faculty and costs. In part, the study was aimed at determining whether or not a name change would attract more potential students.

The survey follows an effort by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce to study a name change at Mesa State.

“Information was our goal,” says Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “Good questions came up, such as what does it mean to be a university?”

Taggart says: “While the name change was a part of those studies, the broader concept was to try to get an idea of what the perception was right now.”

Taggart says one downside to the current name is that people outside Colorado have a difficult time identifying the location of Mesa State. Nearly every state in the west has a town called Mesa. Mesa Community College in Arizona confuses the issue even more.

While about 98 percent of students in Western Colorado know about Mesa State and where it’s located, about 77 percent of Coloradans outside the Western Slope don’t know the college is  located in Grand Junction. In Utah, only 19 percent of potential students could name the location. California was next at 8 percent and just 2 percent of students in Texas could name the location.

“From a brand awareness standpoint, it stops at the border,” Taggart says.

When people were asked whether or not Mesa State should change its name, about half were in favor and half had no interest in changing the status quo. But when the question was asked in a different way, the results shifted significantly. The followup question asked people if they would favor a name change if the change would better communicate college programs and other factors. Given such a qualification, 82 percent favored a name change. The survey had a confidence interval of plus or minus 1.9 percent, Taggart says.

Why is it important for the name of Mesa State College to reflect its location?

Harvard, Cornell and other Ivy League institutions don’t include locations in their names. Taggart says those kinds of institutions have built a reputation for offering strong programs in specific fields of study. Harvard, for example, enjoys  a worldwide reputation for its business school, while Cornell offers noted agricultural and veterinarian programs. The strength of the programs has been communicated through several generations, Taggart says.

Mesa State doesn’t possess the same kind of widespread reputation, and many of its stronger programs are relatively new. The Mesa State business program has a good reputation in the region, but the master’s in business administration degree program is only beginning to gain significant awareness in Mesa County after 11 years. Degree programs in construction management, engineering and a master’s in nursing have yet to gain much notoriety in Grand Junction, let alone other parts of the country.

Should a name change occur, Taggart says the college is mulling over a host of suggestions posted on a large board in his office. He feels strongly Colorado should be included in the name because the state name is readily recognized across the country and even overseas.

And the reputation is a good one, partly for the recreational activities Colorado offers as a complement to college and work life.

Another possible change could include a switch from college to university. Taggart says current Mesa State students favor such a switch.

But he and other college officials suggest there can be a downside: University status might conjure visions of large classes taught by research assistants. In public presentations of the survey, Foster and Taggart say the college wants to protect the current image of small classes taught by knowledgeable professors. The college also wants to protect the image of affordability, particularly at a time when tuition and fees can run $30,000 a year and higher at other colleges.

University status could be adopted by a college, regardless of its student enrollment. But such colleges must offer graduate degree programs. Mesa State fits that bill.

A further look at the big picture leads Taggart to remind people who analyze survey results the name is not at the top of the list of concerns of potential students. Programs of study and cost are the top two factors in choosing a college, he says.

But a name can have some impact. Companies often spend large budgets to develop their names and awareness, taking into consideration public perception and whether or not the names adequately communicate the products or services the companies offer. Such factors are in the mix as Taggart and others examine the issue.

Taggart is no stranger to such analysis, serving as president and chief executive officer of Victorinox Swiss Army prior to accepting the position at Mesa State.

A name change could cost the college a significant amount of money as it reworks everything from signs on campus to website logos to brochures.

Then there’s the matter of the school mascot.

“The other thing you can’t figure out is how do you describe that the name has to fit with Maverick?” Taggart says. Maverick not only provides alliteration in conjunction with Mesa, it also represents an independent spirit, such as Tom Cruise’s character in the movie “Top Gun,” Taggart says.

For now, some might consider a change in name a bit of a maverick approach to college funding concerns. Others might point out the college already has changed names a few times since it was Mesa Community College, and that the time might be right for another change.
Taggart, Foster and others involved in the process are sure to hear plenty of suggestions as they continue to consider what’s in a name.

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