The Magazine for Leaders in Education: The Carnegie Classifications – profiles in change

The Carnegie Classifications – profiles in change – classification of institutions of higher education

Jennifer C. Patterson

As the world of higher education changes, so do our ways of describing it. For nearly 30 years, the college and university community has looked to the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education for those descriptions.

But as the role of government research funding decreases and change in higher education increases, classifications must also evolve. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching periodically revises the classifications, which it began publishing in 1973. Now the classifications are in their fourth edition, and plans are in the works for future revisions to keep this higher-education sorting tool sharp.

Understanding the Change

Alexander McCormick is senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation, the organization that establishes the Carnegie Classifications. He explained to Matrix that the classifications were designed to change continually to accurately reflect the nature of higher education at the time. “Institutions change; they are not static entities. If [the classifications] were frozen in time, it would not reflect changes in the universe of higher education,” he said.

The Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education originated in 1970 and was published as part of the 1971 report “New Students and New Places.” It was published independently in 1973 and billed as a way to classify institutions by function and by characteristics of the students and faculty. It was subsequently revised in 1987 and 1994.

The classifications “were designed as a research tool,” McCormick said. At the time of its original publication, then-commissioner Clark Kerr described the classification’s purpose: “We thought it would be helpful to many individuals and organizations that are engaged in research on higher education.”

Indeed, many people found the classifications helpful. In their easy-to-understand format that made the world of higher education comprehensible to professional and casual observer alike, the classifications became the most common way of quickly describing an institution’s size and focus. The system was used, not just by researchers, but by policy makers, funding agencies, institutional leaders, the media, and the general public.

Along the way, however, people started to use the classifications in ways that deviated from their original purpose. While they continue to be used to assist in research, colleges, universities, and other interested parties are increasingly looking to the classifications as a system of ranking institutions, a practice that does not please the Carnegie Foundation.

“It is the source of some discomfort for us when they are used [as rankings]. We see it as an inappropriate use,” McCormick said. This discomfort played a role in deciding to update the classification system. “[There was a] consciousness of the perception [of the classifications] as a ranking and the role it was playing in shaping institutional aspirations,” McCormick said. He cited reports of schools that set changing their Carnegie Classification as a goal, a process sometimes referred to as “moving up the Carnegie Classifications”.

In some ways, this is a limitation of any classification system that uses a list of categories. It may be particularly tempting to use the Carnegie Classifications as a ranking system because it lists the categories from the largest doctoral and research institutions down through the associate’s-degree-granting and smaller specialty institutions. “We considered changing the order” to lessen the temptation to use the system as a ranking, McCormick said. But the foundation ultimately decided to “maintain the structure of the classification as designed in 1973.”

No current plan attempts to stop people from using the classifications as rankings, but the future strategy of using multiple categories may have the effect of discouraging that use. The desire to avoid use as a ranking system is not the only, or even the primary, reason that the foundation chose to update the classifications. Another important part of the catalyst for change came when the foundation discovered that its data reflecting research activity was becoming inconsistent.

The foundation had relied upon data from the National Science Foundation to reflect federal support for research activities. But, when the NSF modified its reporting to include only science and engineering research, the data available to the Carnegie Foundation, which does not do its own data collection, was uneven.

McCormick said the foundation also had grown “dissatisfied with using a single figure as a proxy for research activity.” By using this single piece of data, the foundation realized that it was only measuring a school’s dependence on federal monies for research, ignoring private sources of research support. Using this figure also ignored the “pass through” of funds, in which a single school receives a federal grant but parcels the money out to its collaborators and partner institutions to complete a project, a severe limitation when measuring research activity. The change in data available from NSF was the final factor that caused the Carnegie Foundation to reexamine its historical use of research funding to help classify institutions.

Further, the 1994 classifications overemphasized the doctoral-granting universities while underemphasizing the remainder of the higher-education universe. Although doctoral and research universities account for just seven percent of all institutions of higher education, the 1994 classifications devoted four of the 19 categories to describing them. The Millennial Classifications reduce the number of classifications for these institutions to two. They also expand the number of categories for baccalaureate colleges from two to three.

And so the foundation reworked the classifications to reflect the changing world of higher education, de-emphasizing the role of government funding in research and beginning to recognize that the broad spectrum of higher education includes more than institutions that emphasize research.

Where once the largest universities were divided into categories such as Research I, Research II, Doctoral I, and Doctoral II, these institutions are now grouped into just two categories. Doctoral/Research Universities–Extensive includes institutions that award 50 or more doctorates per year across at least 15 disciplines, while Doctoral/Research Universities–Intensive includes schools that award 10 or more doctorates across three disciplines or 20 doctorates per year overall. This change has been greeted favorably, especially by schools such as Texas Tech University.

Texas Tech: A Case Study

The change in emphasis away from research dollars has meant a change in classification for Lubbock-based Texas Tech University. Previously a Research II institution, Texas Tech is classified as Doctoral/Research–Extensive under the new scheme.

President David Schmidly is pleased with the new classification. “It is a more accurate assessment of what we do in graduate education” he said. By reflecting the university’s mission in graduate education and de-emphasizing its federal research dollars, Schmidly said the classifications are a better reflection of the university as a whole.

The new category also better reflects Texas Tech’s view of its own place in the higher-education world. “Texas Tech perceives itself to be a comprehensive university and a research university,” Schmidly said. The school’s profile in research is important to its mission. “Our goal has been to advance Texas Tech as a research university,” Schmidly said. As such Texas Tech pays close attention not just to its Carnegie Classification but also to its place in true ranking systems such as the University of Florida’s Top American Research Universities.

What does Schmidly recommend to other schools that want to advance their research agenda and, perhaps, change their Carnegie Classification in the process? For Schmidly, much of it comes down to the faculty. He advises schools to “add more faculty and recruit different kinds of faculty,” broadening the potential research agendas that could be advanced by these scholars. And the work isn’t done after the hiring process is complete. Schmidly also recommends that colleges “expect more research from their faculty,” an expectation that will not just potentially affect a school’s Carnegie Classification but also its place in a ranking such as the Top American Research Universities.

Schmidly said he believes that, by beefing up its research activities, a school will also benefit its true mission of educating its students. “The better your graduate program, the better your undergraduate instruction,” he said, pointing to the pivotal role that graduate programs play in research and teaching. An improved research program will attract better scholars, better graduate students, and, ultimately, more competitive undergraduates.

Looking Ahead to 2005

The Carnegie Foundation is not content to let the classifications become static. Plans are in the works for the next revision, which is expected in 2005. Although no firm decisions have been made, McCormick said the foundation is considering reworking the categories to further group colleges by commonalities while helping the user see the differences between institutions that share certain common characteristics.

According to a document McCormick wrote for the foundation, the single classification system will be broken into a series of classifications, all of which will remind users that institutions can be compared and contrasted on many levels and in may ways.

In “Bringing the Carnegie Classification into the 21st Century,” an article that McCormick wrote for the January, 2000, American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, the new taxonomy will more clearly show that “institutions that resemble one another when viewed through one lens may look quite different through another lens.” “There is a recognition that there is more than one way to group institutions,” McCormick told Matrix. “What differences do we need to control for?”

Also, the 2005 classifications will take the first steps toward recognizing the diversity of associate’s-degree-granting institutions. These schools made up 41 percent of the 1994 classification scheme, making them a “high priority” for the 2005 edition.

By grouping institutions in different ways, the foundation is hoping to help people think in new ways about the landscape of higher education. Along the way, it hopes to create a taxonomy that de-emphasizes the traditional race to be the “best” college and looks instead to helping people find the best fit for their purpose.

“We want to make people think a little harder about what differences matter,” McCormick said.


Research Universities I: Doctoral/Research

50 or more doctorates and $40 Universities–Extensive:

million or more in federal 50 or more doctorates across at

research support per year. least 15 disciplines per year.

Research Universities II: Doctoral/Research

50 or more doctorates and $15.5 to Universities–Intensive:

$40 million in federal research 10 or more doctorates across three

support per year. or more disciplines or 20 or more

doctorates per year.

Doctoral Universities I:

40 or more doctorates across five

or more disciplines per year.

Doctoral Universities II:

10 or more doctorates across three

or more disciplines, or 20 or

more doctorates total per year.

Master’s Colleges and No substantive changes

Universities I:

40 or more master’s degrees across

three or more disciplines per


Master’s Colleges and No substantive changes

Universities II:

20 or more master’s degrees per


Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Baccalaureate

Colleges I: Colleges–Liberal Arts:

40 percent of bachelor’s degrees At least half of awarded

in liberal arts fields and undergraduate degrees are

restrictive admissions. bachelor’s degrees and at least

half of all bachelor’s degrees are

in liberal arts.

Baccalaureate Colleges II: Baccalaureate Colleges–General:

Less than 40 percent of bachelor’s At least half of awarded

degrees in liberal arts or less undergraduate degrees are

restrictive admissions policies. bachelor’s degrees but less than

half of these degrees are in

liberal arts.



At least 10 percent but less than

half of the undergraduate degrees

awarded are bachelor’s degrees.

Associate of Arts Colleges: Associate’s Colleges:

Associate’s and certificate No more than 10 percent of the

programs, no bachelor’s degrees. undergraduate degrees awarded are

bachelor’s degrees.

Specialized Institutions: Half or No substantive changes.

more of all degrees in a single


Tribal Colleges and Universities: No substantive changes.

Members of the American Indian

Higher Education Consortium.

Source: The Carnegie Foundation (

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