ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 17 -- Bowie State College, which in its century of history has been variously called an association, a normal school and a teachers college, now wants to spruce up its image with yet another name: university.

Bowie administrators have asked the General Assembly to let it become Bowie State University. They represent the latest in a rush of Maryland public colleges seeking to enhance their luster and popularity with a single word.

It's a word that makes a difference, said Bowie President James E. Lyons Sr., who came here today to make his case before a House committee.

"We lose students to George Washington University and Georgetown University and Howard University because of the nomenclature," Lyons said in an interview. "People are moved by that."

Just a year ago, when Frostburg and Salisbury state colleges urged the legislature to allow them university status, Lyons said his school was satisfied as a college.

But sentiment changed on campus and in the Prince George's business community, he said, when Frostburg became a university last spring and now that both the House and Senate have agreed this year to let Salisbury become one, too.

"Once those two got in the pipeline, a lot of people who had expressed no interest suddenly starting viewing the question," Lyons said. "People don't want to be left out."

The 3,000-student campus has been prodded, too, by members of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus, who pointed out that, with those two schools renamed, virtually the only state colleges left would be predominantly black schools: Bowie and Coppin State College in Baltimore.

"I don't think it's in the state's interest to have the only remaining colleges be black institutions," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), who is chairman of the caucus' education committee and one of the bill's several sponsors.

Maryland college officials said today that Coppin is not interested in a name change. Nor is the only other state college: St. Mary's College, a small liberal arts school in Southern Maryland.

In Maryland and around the nation, such switching of names has muddied a once-clear distinction between colleges and universities. Historically, the word university was saved for schools with doctoral programs and an emphasis on research.

Today, however, schools that cater primarily to undergraduates are grasping for university status because they believe it connotes prestige and hence will stimulate an influx of students, grants and private donations.

Most states have no rules to determine what schools warrant what kind of name, according to a survey taken last year by Maryland's State Board for Higher Education. "It is a total hodge-podge," said George Funaro, Maryland's deputy higher education commissioner.

The name "university," Funaro said, "has come to mean generally something more about what it symbolizes than what it really is."

Maryland has had rules for more than a decade that try to sort out the difference. The higher education board updated them last year, to restrict university status to schools that have at least six distinct graduate programs and where three-fifths of the faculty have advanced degrees.

In authorizing the name changes for Frostburg and Salisbury, the General Assembly left the final decision in the hands of the board. The same is true of Bowie's bill.