Classify With Care

As the Carnegie Classifications are revised in their new home, it's important to remember the importance of simplicity and clarity, writes Philip G. Altbach.

January 2, 2015
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The Lumina Foundation and Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Education will be taking over the important Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Lumina announced that its Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) will inform the 2015 edition of the classification. This development is yet another step away from the original intent of the classification -- to provide an objective and easy-to-understand categorization of American postsecondary institutions.

In recent years, the Carnegie Foundation made its categories more complex: in part to suit the foundation’s specific policy orientations at the time, and in part to reflect the increased complexity of higher education institutions. As a result, the classification became less useful as an easy yet reasonably accurate and objective way to understand the shape of the system, and the roles of more than 4,500 individual postsecondary institutions.

Among the great advantages of the original classification were its simplicity and its objectivity, and the fact that it did not rank institutions but rather put them into recognizable categories. Unlike the U.S. News and World Report and other rankings, the Carnegie Classification did not use reputational measures—asking academics and administrators to rank competing colleges and universities. It relied entirely on objective data.

It is not clear how the classification’s new sponsors will change its basic orientation, and its new director says that the 2015 version will not be fundamentally altered. Yet, given Lumina’s strong emphasis on access, equity, and degree completion, as well as designing a new national credential framework — highly laudable goals of course — it is likely that the classification in the longer term will be shaped to be aligned with Lumina’s policy agenda, as it was more subtly changed in its later Carnegie years.

The original Carnegie Classification contributed immensely to clarifying the role of postsecondary institutions and made it possible for policy-makers as well as individuals in the United States and abroad to basically understand the American higher education landscape as a whole and see where each institution fit in it. The classification was also quite useful internationally — it provided a roadmap to America’s many kinds of academic institutions. An overseas institution interested in working with a research university, a community college, or a drama school could easily locate a suitable partner. We are likely to lose this valuable resource.

A Historical Perspective

The classification dates back to 1973, when the legendary Clark Kerr, having devised the California Master Plan a decade earlier and leading the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, wanted to get a sense of America’s diverse and at the time rapidly expanding higher education landscape. The original classification broadly resembled Kerr’s vision of a differentiated higher education system, with different kinds of institutions serving varied goals, needs, and constituencies. It included only five categories of institutions — doctoral granting, comprehensive universities and colleges, liberal arts colleges, two-year colleges and institutes, and professional schools and other specialized institutions, along with several subcategories.

Because the classification was the first effort to categorize the system, it quickly became influential — policy-makers valued an objective data based categorization of institutions and  academic leaders found it useful to understand where their own institutions fit. The classification had the advantage of simplicity, and its sponsor was trusted as neutral. Although the classification was not a ranking — it listed institutions by category in alphabetical order, many came to see it in competitive terms. Some universities wanted to join the ranks of the subcategory of “research university–I,” those institutions that had the largest research budgets and offered the most doctoral degrees — and were overjoyed when their institution was listed in that category. Similarly, the most selective liberal arts colleges were in “liberal arts colleges­–I,” and many wanted to join that group. Over time, the classification became a kind of informal measure, if not of rank, at least of academic status.

Fiddling and Changing

The classification’s categories and methodology remained quite stable over several decades of major transformation in American higher education. In 2005, with new leadership at the Carnegie Foundation, major changes were introduced. Foundation leaders argued that the realities of American higher education required rethinking the methodology. It is also likely that the foundation’s focus changed and it wanted to shape the classification to serve its new orientation and support its policy foci. The foundation revised the basic classification, added new categories such as instructional programs, student enrollment profiles, and others. The classification became significantly more complex, and over time became less influential. People found that the new categories confused the basic purpose of the classification and introduced variable that did not seem entirely relevant. The basic simplicity was compromised. Indeed, people still refer to “Carnegie Research 1” (top research universities) even though they have not existed in the Carnegie lexicon for two decades.

There may well be more fiddling — the U.S. federal government’s desire to rank postsecondary institutions by cost and degree completion rates may add a further dimension to the enterprise. A further dilemma is the role of the for-profit higher education sector — these entities are fundamentally different in their orientations and management from traditional non-profit institutions — so also are the new online degree providers. Should these new additions to the higher education landscape be included in the classification? These elements will contribute to “classification creep” — a bad idea.

What Is Really Needed

It is surprising that, in the four decades since Clark Kerr conceptualized the Carnegie Classification, no one has stepped forward to provide a clear and reasonably objective and comprehensive guide to the more than 4,500 postsecondary institutions in the United States. Resurrecting the basic purpose and organization of Kerr’s original Carnegie Classification is not rocket science, nor would it be extraordinarily expensive.

It is of course true that the postsecondary education has become more complex. How would one deal with the for-profit sector? Probably by adding a special category for them. Many community colleges now offer four-year bachelors degrees, but their basic purpose and organization has not essentially changed. There are a larger number of specialized institutions, and many colleges and universities have expanded and diversified their degree and other offerings. Technology has to some extent become part of teaching programs of some postsecondary institutions — and the MOOC revolution continues to unfold. Research productivity has grown dramatically, and research is reported in more ways. Intellectual property of all kinds has become more central to the academic enterprise — at least in the research university sector.

Yet, the basic elements of the original classification — those that help to determine the main purposes and functions of postsecondary institutions — remain largely unchanged, if somewhat more complicated to describe. The key metrics are clear enough:

  • Student enrollment
  • Degrees awarded
  • Types of degrees offered
  • Number of faculty, full-time and part-time
  • Income from research and intellectual property
  • Research productivity
  • Internationalization as measured by student mobility.

A few more might be added — but again, simplicity is the watchword.

The types of institutions — six main and eight major subcategories — seem about right. These might be expanded somewhat to accommodate the growth in complexity and diversity of the system. Later iterations confusingly expanded the categories, in part to reflect the policy and philosophical orientations of the foundation. The basic purpose of the classification will be best served by keeping the institutional typology as simple and straightforward as possible.

While it is clear that these metrics may not provide a sophisticated or complete measure of each institution — and they require additional definitions — they will provide basic information that will make reasonably categorization possible. They lack the philosophical and policy orientations that have crept into the Carnegie Classification in recent years, and return the enterprise to its original purpose — describing the richness, diversity, and complexity of the American higher education landscape.



Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.


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