Why Do Colleges Become Universities? Mission Drift and the Enrollment Economy

Ozan Jaquette

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


This paper analyzes mission drift in baccalaureate colleges. "Becoming a university," defined as a change in organizational name (e.g., Aurora College becomes Aurora University), symbolizes the transition from a liberal arts mission to a comprehensive university mission. Mission drift is conceptualized as a form of "divergent change," which can be studied using institutional theory. This paper develops testable hypotheses about becoming a university by integrating institutional theory literatures on market factors, institutional factors, and network factors. Hypotheses are tested by applying panel methods to a 1972-2010 panel dataset of all private organizations defined as "liberal arts colleges" by the 1973 Carnegie Classification. Results show that colleges became universities in response to declining freshmen enrollments, prior adoption of curricula associated with the comprehensive university model, and when network contacts previously became universities. Organizational age and strong market position lowered the probability of becoming a university. The findings contribute to literatures on organizational change and mission drift. Given that most postsecondary institutions-both public and private-are increasingly tuition reliant, future research should analyze the adoption and the effects of behavioral changes designed to increase enrollment-related revenue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)514-543
Number of pages30
JournalResearch in Higher Education
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Curriculum
  • Higher education finance
  • Organizational change
  • Organizational theory
  • Panel methods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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