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A major reshuffling of how university graduate programs are categorized is quietly debuting this week, adding a growing “professional practice” doctoral category to existing research-based doctoral programs at universities nationwide. (UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the new doctoral category.)

It is the latest adjustment to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the basic way that colleges and universities are categorized -- a process that is likely to accelerate as the classification moves from a five-year cycle of re-examining classifications to a three-year cycle.

In a kind of soft opening posted to its website Tuesday, the Carnegie researchers, who since 2014 have been based at Indiana University, included “doctor's degree -- professional practice” in their methodology for the first time.

Carnegie will now categorize doctoral universities in one of three ways: “very high research activity” institutions with at least $5 million in research expenditures; “high research activity” institutions, also with at least $5 million in research expenditures; and “doctoral/professional universities” -- these report less than $5 million in research or don’t report such expenditures. The categories, respectively, were originally "highest," "higher" and "moderate" research universities.

The first two are equivalent to R1 and R2, while the third now includes those that confer 30 or more “professional practice” doctoral degrees in at least two programs. So-called first professional degrees -- which include the M.D., J.D., Pharm.D., D.Div. and others -- hadn’t previously been considered in the Carnegie listings.

The new categorization will allow 259 institutions to call themselves "high" or "very high" research universities, up from 222 in 2015, according to data from Carnegie. Over all, the recategorization shrank the number of doctoral research universities from 334 in 2015. Another 165 are now "doctoral/professional universities."

Victor Borden, project director for the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education and a professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana, said the new categories were an attempt to “reshape” the classifications in a time of significant change. “It acknowledges the fact that universities have expanded their offerings,” he said. It also “reflects a little better” the current landscape of higher education.

This week’s announcement represents the second time that the classifications have been released since the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching gave Indiana's Bloomington Center for Postsecondary Research control of the process -- and one that will take place more regularly, Borden said, as college mergers, closures, reconfigurations and new online entrants emerge. "Things are changing much more quickly than they used to in terms of institutions," he said.

The reshaping means that a small handful of universities move up to R1 designation -- the classification now describes 120 institutions, up from 115 in 2015.

Auburn University president Steven Leath on Tuesday said the university’s elevation to R1 was “another affirmation of its drive forward to excellence.”

Robert Kelchen, of Seton Hall University’s Department of Education Leadership Management and Policy, said the distinction has become “a key marker of prestige” that, in reality, is “really more bragging rights than anything. Arguably the distinction that matters more for classification is whether you’re classified as a research university at all,” he said.

Kelchen noted that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which just reached R1 status along with eight other universities, explicitly laid out that aspiration in its Top Tier Initiative, aiming to be “recognized as a top-tier public university in research, education and community impact” by 2025. The distinction is the first for a public university in Nevada.

In all, he noted, nine institutions moved up in the reclassification, while four moved down. “This change will scramble quite a few colleges’ peer groups -- and the peer groups are important for things like faculty and staff compensation -- and also who you’re comparing yourself to in terms of student outcomes.”

He noted that his university, Seton Hall, is moving from what was formerly R3 (a "moderate research" institution) to R2. “That changes, to some extent, the universities that we will compare ourselves to,” he said. “It does bring prestige, but it’s likely to bring more cost.”

For faculty, having one’s institution move up the research ladder has implications for tenure and promotion -- all of a sudden, Kelchen said, a professor at a place like Seton Hall “can be compared to people who have higher research intensity” at existing R2 universities. In a few cases, tenure decisions could be made by external personnel “from similar or higher Carnegie classification” universities.

Kelchen also said institutions find it difficult to figure out exactly how to maintain their status, since it is “based on a rather complicated analysis” that is hard to replicate. “You don’t know for sure where you end up standing. I think the best that colleges can do is predict where the cutoff line is, essentially.”

Asked whether the rise in the number of institutions labeled "high" or "very high" research universities suggests a kind of grade inflation, Kelchen said the R1 designation "still means a lot." R2 is meaningful as well, just not to as many universities.

"But what needs to be looked at is whether the colleges now considered research universities would have been so in the past without the new methodology," he said.

As at Auburn and UNLV, the change was met with excitement at Dartmouth College, which had slipped from R1 classification in 2015, only to regain it Tuesday.

Dean Madden, Dartmouth’s vice provost for research, said the development was “a really nice recognition that you can do student-centered research -- and do it at the highest level.”

But like Kelchen he admitted that the ranking algorithms are “really complicated,” which makes it difficult to figure out exactly how Dartmouth rose again to R1. “It’s just hard for us to get overly granular” without knowing more, he said.

But the effort, which coincided with a major capital campaign, saw Dartmouth strengthen research in STEM, social sciences, the arts and the humanities. “All of those factors together combined to give us a good outcome,” he said.

Kelchen said the bigger change over all may be the new “professional practice” classification, since students earning many of these degrees do no dissertation-based research. “It’s just advanced course work,” he said, part of a long-term trend toward accrediting bodies requiring higher-level academic degrees in areas like physical therapy and law, for instance -- despite a dearth of evidence that such degrees improve outcomes.

"It's appropriate to raise questions as to whether this additional investment is worth it to students," he said.

Carnegie’s Borden called the new system “a mechanism for better doing performance assessment,” saying that , as always, discourages using the system to rank institutions.

“There’s no way we can keep people from seeking rank and order -- that’s just human nature,” he said. “But we try to be a source and force that promotes the valuing of diversity and the promotion of more than one idea of quality in higher education.”

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