A New Carnegie Classification Arrives

Foundation will use "community engagement" for the first time in a new, voluntary approach to college groupings.
April 4, 2006

Over the last six months, the Carnegie Classifications -- for decades a definitive way to group colleges -- have been undergoing radical change. A new approach unveiled Monday by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching marks the first time that some classifications will be strictly voluntary and be open to institutions whose traditional classifications would never group them together.

Under the new system, colleges -- whether community colleges, liberal arts colleges or major research universities -- will be able to be recognized as institutions with strong "community engagement," which the foundation describes as "collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity."

In the foundation's first update since 2000, it has already changed the criteria for its long-time classification system and introduced a new system focused more on what colleges teach -- and to whom -- than on the highest level of degrees awarded and research capacity. But while the changes already announced are significant, they also stick with the traditional Carnegie formula of basing groupings on data that are available from all institutions. The new voluntary system -- while it also involves data -- is more focused on various roles that colleges may pick for themselves.

The system introduced Monday "responds to some shortcomings in the national data infrastructure," said Alexander C. McCormick, a senior scholar at Carnegie who directs the classification projects. "There are things that are very important to institutions that aren't represented in the national data."

McCormick said he  hoped that the new process would result in between 80 and 100 colleges being designated as institutions with strong commitment to community engagement. In the future, he said that other voluntary categories would be created, with the first probably being institutions that show strength in taking steps to improve undergraduate education. He also said that there would probably be future reviews on community engagement, both to determine whether those that are approved in the first round should stay, and to add new institutions.

Institutions will not be able to just state that they are committed to community engagement, but will have to provide concrete evidence. Among other things, they will need to describe teaching, learning and scholarship that both benefit the college and the local community. They will also need to provide examples and data on the depth of participation in various outreach efforts. There will be a two-stage review so that some institutions may be discouraged from continuing with the process, but McCormick said that there was no desire to have a high rejection rate of applicants.

McCormick said that Carnegie does not have the staff to do a thorough investigation of each application's claims, but that he believed enough detail was being sought that there would be "self selection" about which institutions would apply. A national advisory committee will also help with the selections.


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