The new Carnegie classifications have emerged from gestation, showing a great deal of thought and energy, which is too bad. Once again we are classifying the boxes and not the fruit.
The education establishment works very hard to say that the classifications are not intended to represent a pecking order among institutions, but the rest of the world instantly uses it that way. The gold rush mentality causes perfectly respectable regional colleges (e.g., Western Oregon University, in my neck of the woods) to wriggle and stretch through all manner of political hoops to become “Universities,” even faux flagships such as the magically relabeled Missouri State University (another perfectly respectable regional college all tarted up with nowhere to go).
There are other classification systems. Although the nation’s system of college accreditation and state approval is not exactly a college classification system, in some ways it functions as one. There are overlapping hierarchies of academic seraphim, cherubim and what Jack Aubrey, in one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, calls “ordinary foremast angels.” Regional accreditors, national accreditors, state agencies and licensing boards all watch with proprietary care the shifting Cassini divisions between their roles and jurisdictions.
It is time to recognize that these boxes, too, are not that different in their basic descriptions except at the lowest levels, and that what matters is the quality of programs colleges contain as related to their mission.
All college degree programs are not created equal, nor are they equal today. This may be obvious to my friends who hold senior faculty positions at the University of Oregon, Illinois, Northwestern and elsewhere in the upper strata of research institutions. These, after all, are major research universities, formally authorized to condescend by their role as the top layer in the Carnegie classification system. Likewise, my friends who hold positions at Washington & Jefferson, Reed, Davidson and other fine liberal arts colleges can nod politely from their elfin perch in the canopy layer, content to consort with fine young minds.
The distinction is less obvious to those who work in and attend the great bulk of American colleges and universities, but it is nonetheless true. All colleges glaze the clay that they are given. The clay is largely formed by the time it reaches college, but the nature of both the formed clay and the available glaze differs widely, and society expects the resultant china to perform differently under different conditions. Let us recognize this reality and stop comparing unlike things.
Meandering through the pages of any college catalog looking at degree programs is much like walking the streets of an old western ghost town (or a movie set of one). All of the programs are excellent, leading their field and cutting edge -- apparently all the faculty trained at Lake Wobegon U. The main drag of programs consists of an impressive array of two-story buildings, all of similar appearance on the front. Some have two stories of solid building behind them, full of rooms and people. Others are mainly false fronts, behind which awaits what amounts to a conveyor belt: “this way to the Egress.”
It is time to stop classifying colleges and start classifying degree programs. Today this is done on an occasional basis for certain doctoral programs by the National Research Council, but other programs are largely ignored except by specialized accreditors in certain fields. All college degrees issued in the United States should be formally classified according to the nature of the work necessary to obtain them. Classification should be mandatory and no college degree should be exempt from it.
Such a classification scheme would allow students, employers and all other interested people to decide whether a particular college degree is what they want, either as a learning experience or in an employee, co-worker or colleague. There are other classification schemes already in existence, but they do not provide the right kind of information needed by most students, potential students and employers.
Each degree-granting program operating legally in the United States should be classified according to the strength of its program as determined by experts in its field. This system should not be applied to colleges, only to degree programs individually, because there is so much variation among programs at each school except the very best and the abysmal.
Note that this system says nothing about admission standards, only about program quality. There is no reason for a program to adjust its quality and expectations based on who enrolls in it: programs should decide what level they should most sensibly be at and stay there. Students will, for the most part, self-select based on program type just as they do now. In this system, programs would be classified as follows, as determined by peers in the field, with U and G representing undergraduate and graduate programs:
Honors (U). The best undergraduate programs, maintaining the highest expectations of students, and using the most difficult and complex curricula. Intended to provide superlative undergraduate learning for its own value and, secondarily, to prepare students to study in Research programs.
Research (G). The highest level graduate programs, intended to train professional researchers and faculty for colleges and universities, exclusive of licensed professional fields. There is no such thing as a “research institution,” there are only research-level programs, and it is time for the higher education establishment to admit this.
Professional (U, G). Programs that train students to practice in licensed professions. Programs of this nature can most effectively be evaluated by professionals in the field, in part using professional licensure rates and reputational surveys within licensed professions. The Carnegie system already has a similar category.
Standard (U, G). Programs designed for a wide variety of students, but not as challenging as Honors programs, with less ambitious expectations. These programs are not designed to prepare students to obtain doctoral degrees in Research programs, although some top students may succeed in such programs.
Basic (U, G). Programs that meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program but do not meet the requirements for a Standard designation owing to some academic deficiencies.
Nonstandard (U, G). Programs that do not meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program, or which decline to be evaluated.
New. Designation of “New” can be applied to any program, only at its own request, during its first five years of operation, as a qualifier for any other classification. Few programs show their true colors right out of the box.
In another of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Stephen Maturin reminds us that “the kinds of happiness cannot be compared.” In some ways, neither can the kinds of degrees. The first necessary step, however, is to recognize that differences exist and to acknowledge them, rather than pretending that all regionally accredited colleges produce the same kind of degree-earning experience, or that degrees issued for one purpose are comparable to those issued for another. This is fiction.
Let us stop using institutional classifications of dubious meaning and start classifying academic programs using a system that is honest, based on evaluation by faculty and helps people understand college degree programs, as well as pointing out which emperors are naked and which paupers wear cloth of gold.
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
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