Injecting Equity Into the Carnegie Classifications

Leaders of the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education envision judging colleges on their contributions to social mobility and racial equity.

March 28, 2022
Ted Mitchell (left) and Tim Knowles

The Carnegie classifications are an enduring institution in higher education, but they’re about to undergo a facelift that could be dramatic.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, explored news that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching had chosen the American Council on Education to help it remake and run the main system we use to differentiate among types of colleges and universities.

Tim Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation, and Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, discussed the partnership and why the time is right to refresh the classifications. The conversation explored their plan to add a significant focus on whether and how much colleges and universities contribute to social mobility and racial equity, potentially by creating an entirely new classification that would sort institutions by the degree to which they’re engines of mobility and equity.

A second conversation included Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor and coordinator of the higher, adult and lifelong education program at Michigan State University, about the potential unintended consequences of focusing too much on social mobility in college rankings.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Tim, the classifications are obviously a foundational part of what the Carnegie Foundation currently does, and I’m sure that finding the right home for them was probably a top priority for you. Can you tell us a bit about how this process unfolded and why you landed on ACE?

Knowles: When the Carnegie Foundation was thinking about who the right partners were for becoming a home for the classifications for the next five or so years, we were really thinking on three fronts. First was the convening power, and clearly, ACE engages institutions of higher ed nationally, globally. Ultimately, the power of the classifications [is] going to be based on their utility, and ensuring they’re redesigned and reimagined with the postsecondary sector is key. The second thing that was important to us was policy traction. And ACE obviously has a very long history of impact on higher education policy going way back to the creation of the GED, the GI Bill and many more examples in more contemporary ways.

Carnegie, too, has had an important policy role: Pell Grants, TIAA-CREF, GRE, Educational Testing Service, etc. Being sure that the classifications actually were going to be undergirded over time by coherent and supportive policy was important to us as well.

And finally, the willingness to think ahead with integrity and try to think clearly about what are our big challenges globally, and nationally. And how can the higher education sector writ large help to address those big challenges? First and foremost on that list is the social and economic mobility challenge. And there was tremendous alignment with ACE on trying to think about that one in creative ways.

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Inside Higher Ed: Ted, why was ACE interested in taking on these classifications? How does it fit into your overall strategy for the organization?

Mitchell: Picking up on Tim’s points on the three vectors, I’ll walk back through them. ACE has been focused for several years now on the importance of equity—racial equity, social mobility. We’ve been doing as much as we can on the program side. And also on the visibility side to highlight institutions that have been all-stars in producing upward mobility for students. Our board reflects that idea. And certainly our program development around equity-based leadership, the race and equity analysis of higher education—all of those things have continued to point us to the social importance of these issues. So the opportunity to work with Carnegie and to work with Tim and his colleagues, to build that into how the core classification system, how we think about higher education in the country is something that we’ve been pushing around inside ACE for some time.

Second, I think, on the policy side, Tim is right and generous. Both Carnegie and ACE have been very active in policy work, on some of the most fundamental changes in higher education. It’s time that we teamed up on those and not just work on parallel paths, but team up for the next generation of real change, which is to broaden the aperture and to create identifiable lanes of excellence for institutions. ACE is the only association that represents all institutions, two-year and four-year, public and private. And because we sit there in the ecosystem, we understand how much it matters to institutions to be represented, to have their missions, their excellence, their work, be represented in the classification system. And we think that over the next several years, we’ll be able to build that kind of robust three-dimensional view of institutional excellence.

Inside Higher Ed: Tim, you’re newish to Carnegie and presumably brought a fresh eye to the classifications. What is your sense about what the classifications as they’re currently constructed do well, and maybe where are the gaps that could use some improvement?

Knowles: They are almost 50 years old, so my first comment is that they are ready for rethinking, rescrutinizing, reimagining. That said, they do some things and have done some things incredibly well. They create a typology in an incredibly diverse ecosystem, their way of differentiating based on all sorts of vectors, what degrees are given out, size of institution, the amount of research versus teaching activities. But again, after 50 years … this is a moment to ask some more fundamental questions about the extent to which the postsecondary sector is addressing some of the big fundamental challenges the nation faces, and how can the classifications be leveraged in new and creative ways to do that …

In terms of things they don’t do so well: they are not a ranking, but they have been used as such. [Research 1] has become a gold standard that many people chase. We are not irregularly asked to send framed pictures of their letters with the R-1 designation, and we say, “No, no, we don’t do that. This is not a ranking.” And yet, both at times government and certainly the ranking agencies have leveraged the Carnegie classifications as such. And that’s something we have to think much more carefully about.

Inside Higher Ed: Ted, what’s your sense of what is working and what isn’t with the current classifications?

Mitchell: Let’s remember in the late 1960s, early 1970s, one of the things we needed to understand better was the distribution of research across American higher education institutions. From the very beginning, the classification system did a terrific job, and still does a terrific job, of identifying those institutions whose mission is really focused on high-level big science and other kinds of research. It played a very important role in signifying to the public, to agencies, to institutions themselves, who was doing what kind of work, especially in the area of research.

The classification systems were less sharp as they moved through the different categories. If we were to ask Inside Higher Ed readers to name five Carnegie classifications, they could probably do three, all three of them starting with “R,” and I don’t think that that’s accidental. To Tim’s point, after 50 years, I think it’s right for us to take a look, is that still exactly what we want to focus on? Is that what we need to understand?

I think our answer is yes, we should continue to focus on that. But I think that we are really struck by a number of the critiques of higher education about whether higher education is just an elite institution serving the elites, whether it really does generate racial equity, social mobility, opportunities for people to climb the economic ladder to join the American dream. And we want to highlight that as we go forward. Things have changed in the ecosystem [in 50 years].

The number of institutions has tripled. The number of students who are going to higher education has quadrupled. It’s time to take a look at this. One downside to where the classifications have been is that what started out as a typology, a descriptive set of categories, has become normative. And that idea of a gold standard, or a north star, has not simply captured the missions of institutions, but it has directed the missions of institutions. I think we want to create multiple lanes of institutional excellence that are aligned with their missions, rather than asking them to reshape their missions to align with the classifications.

Inside Higher Ed: When actual rankings try to respond to criticism that they incentivize less-than-ideal institutional behavior, they tend to alter or more often tweak their criteria by minimizing the weight given to certain factors or embedding new ones. To what extent do you envision accomplishing your goals by reconfiguring the main classification to de-emphasize research or focus more on other factors, versus—and this would be the other way to go—adding a new and separate classification that would supplement the core categorization?

Knowles: That’s the work ahead of us. And we want to do that in an inclusive and collaborative way, which is one of the reasons ACE was such an important partner, so we could enlist tribal colleges, HBCUs, big research elites and everything else in guiding what these decisions are. My second answer is there remains value, as Ted just said, in creating typologies that differentiate between certain kinds of activities, whether it’s delivering two-year degrees or delivering lots of teachers and social workers to the field or delivering large bodies of STEM-related research activity.

I’ll say this, just to sort of capture the challenge of the R-1 becoming a destination for everyone. One of my first conversations when I became the president of the foundation was with the president of an HBCU, who said to me, point-blank, “Tim, guess how many HBCUs are R-1s?” And I said, “I think I know the answer to that.” And he said, “Yeah, and it’ll take me 100 years to get there.”

So when you have a classification system that suddenly becomes normative, and a destination, that’s why we have to rethink it, because those very HBCUs are doing, in some cases, as much or more for the country in terms of addressing another fundamental problem in income inequality, and social and economic mobility, as any of the elite research institutions may be doing. That’s why we think this is such an important time to build a more comprehensive picture and create multiple destinations, if they have to be destinations.

Mitchell: The HBCU example is an important one, because it speaks to the different ways that institutions can be excellent. If you look at the percentage of young men and women of color who leave HBCUs and go on and get Ph.D.s, especially Black scientists, there’s an overwhelming overrepresentation of HBCU graduates among that list. And yet the current classification system doesn’t have a way of rewarding that.

Similarly, among regional comprehensive institutions, there are social mobility rates that are far greater than there are in many of the flagship research universities. That’s not to deny the importance of the flagship research universities as engines of social mobility. But where do those regional comprehensives get to point and get their letters framed?

What we’re after here is, again, not to diminish the role of America’s great research universities—it is a part of what makes our education system great. But the first sentence that I learned when I came to ACE was that the greatness of American higher education lies in its diversity. That is true. And we want to recognize that diversity.

Inside Higher Ed: Just to clarify: recognizing that this is a work in progress, is there a decision that is going to have to be made about whether to incorporate those factors through a new, separate classification of some kind, rather than through a revision of the core one we’re all familiar with?

Mitchell: The quick answer is the one that Tim gave a moment ago. That is the work, and so there will be decisions. Right now, we do see the creation of a differentiated set of indicators around racial equity and social mobility. We don’t know if that’s how it will end up. Even if it is an independent categorization within the universal classification, we know that we have to work internally to make sure that that is coherent, responsible. We think we need to build it, and then we’ll decide whether it’s independent or whether it is an augmentation to the basic.

Inside Higher Ed: Tim, why are racial equity and social mobility so essential to build into the classifications at this particular moment in whatever way you ultimately decide to go?

Knowles: I’ll just point to two pieces of research. One is Raj Chetty’s work on economic mobility, which basically paints an incredibly stark picture of decreasing mobility over the last 50 years, and though he hasn’t yet updated it for this current generation, there’s every expectation that economic mobility is really going backwards in this country.

The other piece of research, less well heralded but equally important—perhaps more so—is the work done by the Federal Reserve, Duke and economists at the New School, which looked at net income of families by race. On average, the net worth of a white family was $247,000; on average the economic net worth of a Puerto Rican family was $3,020. And on average, the number for a Black family was $8. This isn’t saying higher education is the reason for that. However, higher education is an instrumental variable in addressing that, and that’s why [we need] to elevate social and economic mobility, in my view, in a much more serious way, if we want to get ahead of a problem that is instrumental not just to the nation’s economy, but to the democracy.

Inside Higher Ed: Do you think that the classifications as they’ve been constructed … have contributed as an engine of equity? Or have they been in any way something that impedes it or that doesn’t drive it?

Knowles: I think the answer is both. When you have a situation where R-1 institutions are told, or are invited by the federal government to apply for $300 million or $400 million grants, and those opportunities aren’t available to any of the other classifications, they’re really just for R-1s, then you build in the potential for significant inequity into the very system. Because how do I become an R-1? I become an R-1 by having resources, by having X number of degrees, X number of research dollars, this kind of student-teacher ratios. Then if, because I have resources, I’m then eligible to have more, that is worth interrogating in a serious way.

And when you have institutions that are doing really elegant work in terms of propelling young people, whether they’re state systems or private institutions, and the propulsion is a fundamental value, like actually being able to move from one quintile to the next in terms of your economic status, then I think you could argue that classifications have helped to reinforce some of the stasis.

Mitchell: We do a lot of work with presidents, and new presidents in particular. It’s a little bit disturbing to hear a new president stand up before the alumni and say, “My goal is that within 10 years or five years, we will be an R-1 institution,” without actually asking the question why? Or asking the question, what are we doing that would be equally valuable to society? So I think the normative aspect of this is contributing to the maldistribution of resources across institutions of higher education, whether they’re federal research dollars or philanthropic dollars.

We’re trying to create a suite of classifications that allow excellence to emerge around the kind of throughput that Tim is talking about …

Inside Higher Ed: Is there any tension created by a membership organization that does lobbying, like ACE, taking on this job of revising and helping to run these classifications?

Mitchell: Tim and I obviously talked a lot about it as we went through this process. Three quick answers: ACE represents everybody. So it’s going to be very difficult for us to put a thumb on the scale around one type of institution. And that’s really why we’re getting into this, because we see the value of so many different kinds of institutions. Second, we’re building an organization that will be separate from the rest of ACE. And third, this is not going to be some sort of backroom science experiment. We at ACE pride ourselves on engaging the community and hard issues. And so, we will make this process as open and as transparent and as iterative as possible, so that at the end of the day, people are bought into the algorithm by which the classifications will work. We’re going to go farther than just doing that on the front end—we’re committed to making all of the data available, creating open APIs for researchers across the field.

Inside Higher Ed: Do you see the revising of the classifications … as being a potential antidote to some of the potentially damaging effects that rankings may have on how institutions behave in terms of chasing prestige or selectivity over other goals and values?

Mitchell: One of the things we don’t want to build is another 50-year classification system. We want to build a classification system that is much more malleable, that learns from the work and learns from the response of the field and changes as a result. One of our hopes is that as we develop these new classification rubrics, we are able to help the field understand what it takes to be the best engine of social mobility, how to be the best sustainable institution.

Knowles: It’s probably a human compunction, and certainly an American compunction, to rank things. We have an appetite for it. And I think in some ways, the classifications, just as we have appetites for things that aren’t healthy for us, we need countervailing forces … Trying to distinguish between 5,000-plus institutions isn’t our goal. But we are going to make value judgments about what’s important. We do think economic mobility matters. We do think that higher ed is an important engine for that, and we are going to pay attention to it. But we’re not going to differentiate between the first and the 183rd. We’re going perhaps to say there are three or four levels [of equity] at which you can be viewed to perform. And so yes, there may be an “E-1” and an “E-5.” Our job is a complicating one, and a nuanced one. That, yes, we value things, and so I don’t want to be blind to that. And we’re putting a judgment on some things being important, but we’re trying to do it in a different way.

Conversation With Brendan Cantwell

Inside Higher Ed: You published a thought-provoking essay in The Chronicle entitled “Against Social Mobility Rankings” that responded at least in part to the proposed revision of the Carnegie classifications that we just heard Tim Knowles and Ted Mitchell talk about. Can you give listeners a quick summary of the key points of your piece?

Cantwell: That article was actually written before I even knew that the Carnegie classifications were going to incorporate social mobility. When that announcement happened, I was able to just fold that topic in a little bit, because it was related to the rest of the article. The article itself was a response to the growing trend in the higher education policy and advocacy world, in the public conversation, to shift the conversation away from exclusion, highly selective universities, to give much more attention to those institutions that are serving students broadly and doing quite a lot of good and important work in terms of social mobility, and providing gateways to new opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have them.

On the whole, I’m very pleased with this shift in the conversation, and think it is productive and right and orienting policy with the values that many of us have. The catch is that I think that there can be too much of a good thing. And where I became concerned with the direction of the conversation is with this new development of providing rankings for social mobility. The reason I’m concerned about that is not because I think social mobility is bad, or we shouldn’t have data about social mobility. I think social mobility is good, and we should have data about it.

But I know that the methods used don’t allow us to attribute cause to the social mobility. So we can’t say that the institution itself, say, the University of Maryland, caused social mobility for its students. That’s not to say the University of Maryland had no hand in helping students achieve good things. It’s saying that it’s a really complicated process that involves a lot of factors, and isolating the University of Maryland’s impact is really a difficult thing to do.

So I was raising this point that context really matters and that when you begin to rank something like the best campus for social mobility down to the worst campus for social mobility, there’s a really strong implication that the differences between those campuses are caused by choices that the administration is making.

To some extent, that is true, but to a large extent, it may not be true. It’s great to shine a light on the campuses that are doing really good and important work and are implicated in social mobility or helping with social mobility. But it may be not helpful when we begin to do actually ranking in some ordinal way because of the causal implications, and because it takes what is a very complicated topic and distills it into something that seems more simple than it is.

Inside Higher Ed: Why is it hard to attribute a good or bad outcome on social mobility to an institution?

Cantwell: Ways in which it is related to the institution’s behavior: the students that apply to the institution that the institution chooses to select. If the institution is admitting students from a broad range of backgrounds, low-income students, then it is in a better position to support those students to achieve social mobility because it’s technically possible, right? Also in the institution’s control is the type of supports that the institution provides to help students graduate and get through. The kind of advising and academic and social supports that an institution is providing the students.

Things that are partly in the institution’s control are the cost of education and the debt and price that students pay. I say that’s partly in the institution’s control, because, yes, they can certainly make choices about how they spend their money and how much money they need to generate to operate. But a lot of those costs are fixed, and so while there [are] some areas of discretion, it is not fully in the institution’s control, and an institution with a lot of resources, say, from an endowment with unrestricted access to funds, is better able to make choices to support lower-income students, than an institution that doesn’t have those kinds of resources. An institution that benefits from a state that provides a generous public subsidy is better able to control those prices, and the cost associated with participating in higher education, than an institution that doesn’t.

And then things that are really out of the institution’s control are the types of jobs available in the communities, where it’s located in the communities, where their students live and make families after they graduate. So places where there are lots of jobs and lots of high-paying jobs, you can see more social mobility, because those opportunities are just available for students to take advantage of once they graduate, and especially if they’re able to earn a degree.

You notice that a lot of campuses that do the best on social mobility indexes are in New York and Los Angeles, and making $100,000 in New York City is different than making $100,000 here in East Lansing, Mich. So that’s also out of the control of the college—the cost of living and where it’s located.

Inside Higher Ed: The Carnegie classifications are not a ranking, so some of the critiques or worries that you have don’t apply as much. But the classifications do drive institutional behavior in some of the ways rankings do, in part because some people use them, not exactly as a ranking, but pretty close. The pursuit to be an R-1 does lead some institutions to focus on research and potentially to be more selective in admissions. And as we just heard, the reasons why the folks who are now going to be responsible for Carnegie’s classifications want to include some assessment of social mobility is as a counterweight to what they recognize is a probably still valid, but not fully inclusive, way of judging institutions. How do you look at that potential use of social mobility? Do you still see ways in which that could be problematic?

Cantwell: I am taking a sort of wait and see approach with Carnegie, because we don’t know yet how social mobility will be measured, or how this classification will work … I am a little bit less concerned on the face of it with classifications than I am with rankings, because it doesn’t have a very strong implied value judgment, necessarily. It’s much more a description of mission and activity.

Inside Higher Ed: What problems could you see arising from ACE’s involvement in the classifications?

Cantwell: I could imagine that some of the ways that social mobility categories are devised could not be especially welcome for many of the private colleges and universities that ACE represents. So there would be a sort of potential tension between doing what is essentially right for them, those members and doing a social mobility classification in a way that makes sense to researchers and accountability folks.

But this definitely indicates some shift in higher education generally … Adding the social mobility classification is a suggestion that the sector as a whole recognizes that serving students and participating in activities that lead to greater social equity is important.

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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