Radical Reclassification

"Carnegie Classifications" -- widely used to group colleges -- are undergoing the most significant changes in their history.
January 25, 2005

The "Carnegie Classifications" are being reshaped dramatically in advance of their next release, later this year.

For the first time in the taxonomy's history, colleges may be able to be listed in more than one category. That is because the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is creating "elective categories." These categories will be based on whether colleges have certain missions and accomplish certain goals, such as being engaged in their local communities or improving undergraduate education.

Until now, the classifications were based on criteria that were intended to neatly divide colleges, based on such factors as how many doctoral degrees they awarded, what share of their degrees were undergraduate, etc. The classifications are widely used by government agencies, foundations and academics to compare colleges and to group them for the purposes of grant competitions, joint ventures or setting faculty salaries. The new system will for the first time create categories that might include a research university, a liberal arts college, and a community college.

At the same time Carnegie is creating the new categories, it is overhauling its existing ones in key ways. It is adding back a measure of research activity, which was last used in the 1994 classification, but which was dropped in 2000. And for the first time ever, Carnegie will create at least two categories for community colleges, which have always been grouped together in a single one.

Alexander McCormick, a senior scholar at Carnegie who directs the classifications, said the changes amounted to the most significant overhaul in the program since the listings were first published, in 1973.

Why New Categories Are Needed

Carnegie officials and other educators have talked informally about the idea of creating new forms of categories for many years, but there was little consensus or detail on what approach to take.

McCormick said that the need for the new categories emerges from the popularity of the classification system.

"The most fundamental reason we need to do this is the great success that the Carnegie Classification has enjoyed over the the last 35 years," McCormick said. "The paradoxical consequence of that success is that there has been a narrowing of people's conceptions of colleges as similar or different."

"There are similarities among Stanford and Michigan and Yale that have made sense" for grouping them together, he said, "but there are times that Stanford and Williams should be compared," and the traditional classifications made that impossible. Under the new system, a foundation wanting to spend money to promote a certain kind of educational improvement need not assume that the best work is done at any one type of college.

Another problem with the current system is that too many colleges have focused -- to the point of "obsession," McCormick said -- on what they perceive to be the prestige categories of research universities and liberal arts colleges. As a result, many colleges have tried to add programs with the idea of switching categories.

"We've been concerned for years about the extent to which the classification is seen as a ranking process that creates winners or losers," McCormick said. The new "elective" categories may encourage colleges to think about their missions, rather than trying to embrace the missions of other institutions, he added.

Much about the new categories remains to be worked out. Carnegie has picked 13 colleges to collaborate with the foundation on developing criteria for a classification of colleges with "community engagement." The other debut category for the elective approach will be colleges that are focused on assessing and improving undergraduate education.

By the end of the year, Carnegie hopes to have established criteria that would allow colleges to provide information indicating that they should be classified in one or both of those categories. Future categories may be added over time.

The 13 colleges working on the project with Carnegie are Kapiolani and LaGuardia Community Colleges; Spelman and Tusculum Colleges; Elon, Michigan State, Northern Kentucky, Portland State, and Santa Clara Universities; the Universities of Denver, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Still More Changes

McCormick said he was reluctant to discuss details related to the changes Carnegie is making with the traditional classifications because those revisions have many unresolved issues. But he outlined these changes:

  • Research activity will be measured. Until the 2000 classification, one criterion for distinguishing among research/doctoral universities was the amount of federal research support. In 2000, that was replaced with measures based on the number of doctorates awarded. In 2005, a measure of research activity will be restored, but it will use a "multi-measure index," and not the sole measure of federal grants.
  • Differences between categories will be better explained. McCormick said that the current categories give the false impression of a "big chasm" between certain kinds of institutions. Colleges that are quite similar -- especially primarily undergraduate institutions with some master's programs -- can end up in different categories, and McCormick said that the foundation wants to better communicate that these institutions aren't that different.
  • Community colleges will no longer be grouped in a single category. The "single greatest failing" of the classifications to date, McCormick said, "is the failure to reflect the diversity of this group. They just sit in a big, undifferentiated lump, and we all know that there is great diversity in that universe." He declined to say how the community colleges would be divided.

A final change under consideration could be quite controversial. Carnegie has always made some case-by-case decisions in which foundation officials have determined that even though a college fits measures of one category, it really belongs elsewhere.

"In some ways, that's been a conceit for the foundation and the world of higher education: that we really know them well enough that we can make exceptions," McCormick said. While he acknowledged that there are "real limits to any empirically driven classification system," he said that the foundation may stop making these individual exceptions.

The foundation hopes to publish a draft of its classifications in the summer and a final version late this year. The previous classifications were published in 1973, 1976, 1987, 1994 and 2000.


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