Carnegie Classification system updates promise more transparency, multifaceted designations

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, used to categorize nearly 4,000 higher education institutions in the U.S. according to the types of degrees they confer and their research activities, is getting an overhaul. The changes aim to reduce competition for its more prestigious designations and better recognize the missions of colleges and universities across the country.

The American Council on Education (ACE), which currently controls Carnegie Classifications, has partnered with its owner, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, to create a new methodology for the classifications, according to an announcement. Those changes will include a new Social and Economic Mobility Classification, which will evaluate how well colleges advance students’ social and economic outcomes. A framework for that addition will be released in the next few months.

“The American higher education landscape is incredibly dynamic and complex. But the Carnegie Classifications as they are organized today do not capture that dynamism or the variety of higher education institutions,” Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, said. “We are reimagining the Carnegie Classifications to better group and organize like institutions to accurately reflect the broad scope of their work with students, communities, and the broader public purposes of higher education.”

The classifications first were published in 1973, with the last update in 2021, Higher Ed Dive reports. The newest model will be released in 2025, incorporating feedback from education leaders, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders.

Reducing competition, increasing transparency

Meant to be a tool to distinguish institutions from each other, the Carnegie Classifications organize U.S. colleges and universities into 33 groups in the current “traditional classification framework.” The so-called Basic Classification groups all U.S. colleges and universities according to the highest degree they award.

As part of the forthcoming updates, the classification system will aim to reduce competition for what are deemed the most sought-after Basic Classification labels, Research 1 (R1) and Research 2 (R2) universities, designations conferred to doctoral universities with very high or high levels of research activity.

The current model, established in 2005, capped the number of universities receiving the R1 designation and left institutions confused about the differences between R1 and R2 status. The forthcoming model clarifies that R1 universities will need to have at least $50 million in research and development spending and give 70 or more research doctorates annually to receive the new “Very High Research Spending and Doctorate Production” R1 label. R2 institutions, called “Higher Research Spending and Doctorate Production” under the new model, will maintain the current threshold of at least $5 million in research spending and 20 research doctorates each year. There are currently 146 R1 institutions (including Georgetown University) and 133 R2 institutions.

Mushtaq Gunja, a senior vice president and executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems, tells Higher Ed Dive that he predicts Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) will be awarded R1 status for the first time ever under this more transparent model. Certain HBCUs have been working toward R1 status for years and have received millions to expand their research and development (R&D) programs. In fiscal year 2022, Howard University received a record $122 million in annual research funding, while North Carolina A&T State University received a record $147.4 million in R&D funding in fiscal year 2023.

Recognizing more research contributions

The new model will also look at the research contributions of postsecondary institutions that don’t offer doctoral degrees. The updated system will award multiple labels to institutions to show not only the highest degrees they offer but also the size of the institution, its location, and its academic programs. Feedback is still needed as ACE and the Carnegie Foundation continue to develop these additional categories.

The updated Carnegie Classifications also will introduce a “Research Colleges and Universities” designation to reveal the research contributions happening at higher education institutions that don’t offer doctoral degrees. To earn this designation, institutions that haven’t been awarded R1 or R2 designations will have to spend at least $2.5 million on research annually.

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