Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a Baltimore-based firm best known for operating after-school tutoring centers across the United States and Canada, yesterday changed its name to Laureate Education Inc.

The name better reflects the company's new focus on running career-oriented universities outside the United States, said chairman and chief executive Douglas L. Becker.

Sylvan sold the tutoring piece of its business last year, and turned its attention to operating university campuses in nine countries, including Mexico, Chile, Spain and Switzerland.

The name change was vital, Becker said, because Sylvan Learning Systems was still being closely identified with tutoring primary and secondary school students.

"The name was confusing because everybody who knows the name 'Sylvan Learning Systems' assumed they knew what we did," Becker said. "And they didn't."

Sylvan sold its tutoring business for about $300 million to Educate Inc., a Baltimore firm that announced plans last week to make a public stock offering.

"The tutoring business was a wonderful business," Becker said. "But within a few years the higher education business had become twice the size of the tutoring business. So our feeling was we could have one high-growth, pretty simple business and just run with it."

Most of Sylvan's recent profit has came from its online and overseas university operations, Becker said. The company reported a profit of $46.1 million in 2003 -- compared with a $95.9 million loss the previous year -- on revenue of $472.8 million.

Sylvan Learning Systems was founded as a private company in 1991 and turned into a public firm in 1993. It is a competitor of Kaplan Inc., a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co.

Becker said Sylvan's move into higher education was prompted by the success of a former subsidiary that offered computerized exams such as the TOEFL -- an English-language proficiency test taken by foreign students seeking admission to U.S. universities.

"We were in 120 countries, delivering this exam and I would travel from country to country," Becker said. "And wherever I went, I'd see people lined up to take this TOEFL test. They were doing this for the privilege of spending tens of thousands of dollars to come to the U.S.

"It just occurred to me that for every one of those students who could afford to come to the U.S. . . . there must be 100 who would like to get an international, high-quality education without leaving their own country."

In 1999, Sylvan began buying existing universities to offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in fields such as law, education, business, engineering and health care. The company also rolled out four online, distance-learning universities, and opened a hotel management school in China.

"Our first campus was in Madrid," Becker said. "We were extremely interested in being global. Yet we wanted to initially have the efficiency of teaching and working in one language. So we picked the Spanish language. And in picking the Spanish language, we decided that Spain would be the most stable country to start with."

All told, the company has 113,000 students enrolled in campus-based universities and 17,000 in online programs, according to Becker. Tuition ranges from about $3,000 a year in Mexico to $16,000 in Switzerland, a company spokeswoman said.

Sylvan's stock price has almost doubled over the past year on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Yesterday -- trading for the last time under the ticker SLVN -- it closed at $34.35, down 3.2 percent from Friday's close. Today, Laureate will make its Nasdaq debut under the ticker LAUR.