Higher ed’s game of thrones: ACE plans to debut new Carnegie Classification methodology this year


It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as several decades for higher education: colleges hyperfocusing on climbing the tiers of the Carnegie Classifications, a frequently used system of categorizing like institutions that debuted in 1973.

This dynamic is most frequently on display when colleges with doctoral programs try to hop into the Research 2, or R2, ranking — which designates institutions with high levels of research activity — or when they’re trying to move from R2 to R1, the top tier of institutions with very high research levels. 

The perks of R2, and particularly R1, are many. Colleges tout their classification as a mark of prestige, which attracts student and donor attention. The most federal research dollars flow to R1 institutions. 

Yet critics bemoan that some colleges have compromised their missions — and thus the quality of undergraduate education — in pursuit of R1. 

The allure of reaching this status won’t dissipate anytime soon. But colleges will have a new path to get there. 

Either in late 2024 or early 2025, the American Council on Education — which as of last year administers the Carnegie Classifications — wants to release colleges’ placements under a new formula. ACE says this new iteration will capture a more nuanced view of institutional missions. 

ACE officials shared this planned timeline at the higher ed lobbying group’s annual meeting Friday in Washington, D.C. It first intends to publish the methodology behind the revised classifications this summer or fall.

Shortly after, it plans to premiere the framework for an entirely new Carnegie metric, one that will scrutinize colleges’ success in advancing students’ social and economic positions. It wants to finalize this social and economic mobility model in mid-2024.

What do the classifications look like now?

The traditional Carnegie Classification categories have remained relatively static since their introduction in the ‘70s. Colleges are sorted into groups based on the highest level of degree they award, which ranges from doctorates down to associate degrees.

Colleges also participate in elective classifications, like one that gauges how well they engage with their communities. 

Initially devised as a tool to help researchers delve into higher education, the classifications almost immediately were leveraged for other purposes, said Mushtaq Gunja, an ACE senior vice president and executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems, during a Friday presentation. 

Even though the classifications are not rankings, the higher ed world and beyond has essentially adopted them as such. 

U.S. News & World Report, for instance, orders colleges in its rankings based on their Carnegie class. Doctoral universities, which include R1 and R2 institutions, are deemed “national universities” in U.S. News’ system.

For nearly a decade, starting in 2014, Indiana University housed the classifications. When a plan to transition them to Albion College, a private liberal arts institution in Michigan, fell through after a scandal with its president, ACE took them on. 

The lobbying organization has a five-year management agreement with the classifications’ owner, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

What could be included in a new classification system?

Gunja and Sara Gast, deputy executive director of the Carnegie Classification Systems, said Friday that 3,500 higher education leaders have attended meetings, presentations, webinars and the like to weigh in their experience with the classifications. 

ACE has also met with U.S. Department of Education officials, as well as other federal agencies that provide research funding to colleges.

According to ACE officials, it will sort colleges in two ways at minimum. First, they’ll be grouped based on several yet-undecided characteristics. That could be their size, location, length of programs offered, or racial diversity on campus


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