Skip to content
Quick Start for:

Carnegie classifications spur university competitiveness

Tops in Their Class

In December 2000, Texas suddenly gained six more top-flight research institutions, according to a prestigious educational foundation. But it didn't involve magic or an overnight leap in professorial I.Q.s.

Instead, the happy event was due to a change in the way American colleges and universities are classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, creators of the Carnegie Classification of Higher Education.

The Carnegie Classification has become extremely influential in shaping public perceptions of the relative quality of U.S. institutions of higher education, even though this result was unintended by the system's creators, who discourage its use as a ranking system. But this sentiment runs counter to human nature and the universities' understandable desire for recognition. For better or worse, most American institutions of higher education think that where they fall in the Carnegie Classification matters quite a lot.

Breaking down the schools
The Carnegie Classification, first published in 1971, was intended to serve as a research tool for those studying higher education. It has been revised three times, most recently in 2000. The latest revision classifies more than 3,900 accredited public and private colleges, universities and other educational institutions according to the type and number of degrees they award and the nature of their primary educational missions.

The current classification scheme separates higher education into 10 broad categories. These include two for "Doctoral/Research Institutions," which offer a broad range of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and support a significant amount of research. There are two more categories for "Master's Colleges and Universities," primarily devoted to the awarding of bachelor's and master's degrees and two categories for "Baccalaureate Colleges" that focus on liberal arts and general studies. There is a category for colleges that offer both bachelor's and associate's degrees; another for those offering only associate degrees; a catch-all "Specialized Institutions" category for everything from military institutes to art schools; and a category for tribal colleges generally located on Native American reservations.

Moving up the ladder
While the foundation maintains that its assessment is a classification, not a pecking order, it fears that its work has become interpreted as just that, not least because the Carnegie classifications are used in preparing the highly influential annual university ratings of U.S. News and World Report, which identifies "best buys" and makes other qualitative judgments. And while each type of higher educational institution serves a useful role, numerous persons in the field have noted that, as a September 2001 article in Community College Review stated, "Although not every institution can or wants to be in the top [Carnegie] category--there is continual pressure placed on educational institutions to improve in stature and rank."

According to Dr. Alexander C. McCormick, a Carnegie Foundation scholar who supervised the most recent revision, "Although the classification was intended as a relatively neutral research tool, it fairly quickly got reinterpreted as a ranking scheme, offering targets for institutions to aim for. An institution on the move could orient themselves specifically to the measures used in the classification." And many have. A number of institutions across the nation, including North Dakota State University, West Virginia's Marshall University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the University of Houston, have made moving "up" in the Carnegie Classification a formal goal.

Not a ranking
But is a university's classification only a status symbol? Special attention is focused on the Carnegie research institution categories, which include many of the nation's largest, most prestigious schools, and some maintain that the classifications and the U.S. News and World Report rankings place undue stress on research and slight the achievements of other schools, such as urban institutions whose bachelor's and associate's degrees prepare large numbers of candidates for the work force.

Some press accounts have stated that governmental agencies and foundations that award research funding use the Carnegie Classifications to target grants at various types of institutions, although McCormick says "I frankly have not seen a whole lot of hard evidence of it. Carnegie Classification may enter into [funding decisions], but I question whether it's a dominant consideration." Recruitment is another matter, however. "Colleges told us that it makes a difference in their ability to recruit the best faculty and senior administrators. There are a lot of institutions that have explicit goals of moving up in the Carnegie classification, and some of that is for recruitment benefits."

Changes at the top
The 2000 revisions to the classification scheme were intended, in part, to discourage its use as a ranking system. The most important change affected the high-profile research category; four previous categories (Research University I and II and Doctoral University I and II) were collapsed into the present two (Doctoral/Research University-Extensive and Doctoral/Research University-Intensive). In addition, the number of categories for baccalaureate colleges rose from two to three. Both changes may help correct any perceived overemphasis on doctorate-granting institutions.

The foundation also altered the qualifications for these categories, removing a yardstick related to the amount of federally funded research and replacing it with a teaching measure--the number and type of Ph.D.s awarded annually--to produce a more balanced picture of the varied missions colleges and universities undertake.

"I think people were focusing a little too heavily on federal funding in connection with their ambition to move their institutions up the Carnegie classification," says McCormick. In addition, the revised classifications for baccalaureate institutions removed a measure that assessed school admissions standards, a factor the foundation believed contributed to the perception that the classifications were in fact rankings of institutional worth.

Tier I initiative
In Texas, the University of Houston (UH) referenced the Carnegie Classifications in a successful effort to increase state funding for research-oriented institutions. In February 2000, UH President Arthur K. Smith launched the "Texas Tier I Initiative" to increase Texas universities' access to what Smith calls "excellence funding"--additional funding beyond the amounts needed for current programs and capital expenditures, which can be used to hire leading faculty members and purchase state-of-the-art facilities and equipment.

The initiative's name refers to the fact that, under the older Carnegie Classification, Texas had just two schools in the Research University I category, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station. This "Tier I" category, Smith believes, contained the institutions with the greatest potential for advancing both knowledge and economic growth. These flagship universities, backed by the state's Permanent University Fund, have received the lion's share of state excellence funding since the 19th Century. And UH noted that out of the nation's 10 largest cities, the only ones lacking a Tier I university were all located in Texas--Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.

New classifications
The 2000 revision left Texas looking a little better, on paper at least, with eight universities in the Doctoral/Research Universities-Extensive category. The reclassification didn't stop the Tier I initiative, however. The 2001 Legislature responded by creating two new funds, the Texas Excellence Fund and the University Research Fund, to provide the additional funding needed to pursue improvements in other Texas universities besides the behemoths in Austin and College Station. Each fund received $33.8 million in general revenue for the 2002-03 biennium.

Grover Campbell, UH vice chancellor for Government Affairs, calls the new funds a welcome change in Texas' approach to college funding.

"The session before last, in 1999, was the first time the Legislature had really considered the issue of having more than two nationally competitive research universities," Campbell says. "And now the debate has finally moved from 'Does Texas need more than two?' to trying to address the issue of how many we do need, and where they should be. That's an incredible move in just three years."

Campbell sees the state's need for more high-quality research institutions as a necessity.

"If Texas is going to be competitive with other states, other regions, the Pacific Rim, the European market and Latin America, we're going to have to continue to develop cutting-edge technologies--we need to be the ones generating these technologies and the educated work force they'll require."

More changes to come
In 2005, the Carnegie Foundation plans to release a completely revised set of classifications that will no doubt trigger more comparisons, more debate and a healthy competitiveness among American universities. McCormick says that research funding may reappear as a factor.

"We're probably going to move to a multi-measure approach rather than a single measure," he says. "We're certainly interested in a classification scheme that taps, among other things, research activity as an important dimension of what many institutions do."

The foundation is considering replacing the single classification scheme with a series of classifications, to allow users to make a variety of comparisons and contrasts--and to remind them, once again, that higher education includes numerous missions and roles that cannot be captured in a simple "ranking." The new classification scheme will serve its purpose, as McCormick has said, if it makes people "think a little harder about what differences matter."

Bruce Wright