What's Ahead for the Carnegie Classifications?
By Alexander C. McCormick
From the January 2000 AAHE Bulletin
Bringing the Carnegie Classification Into the 21st Century
The Carnegie Classification has served higher education well for three decades, but the
time has come for a new approach that recognizes the many dimensions of commonality and
difference among institutions.
It is time to rethink the Carnegie Classification system. To some, the very notion of
changing the Carnegie Classification borders on heresy. But heretical notions are
sometimes needed to bring about positive change.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education was developed in 1970
by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (a project of the Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching) to aid its policy research. The Commission needed a taxonomy
that reflected the great variety of American higher education while providing "more
meaningful and homogeneous categories than are found in other existing
classifications." The "existing classifications" at that time typically
differentiated institutions according to simple descriptors such as level (two- or
four-year, with four-year sometimes divided into doctoral and nondoctoral) and control
(public or private, with private sometimes divided into sectarian and nonsectarian). Such
taxonomies failed to capture important differences, grouping very different institutions
and separating institutions with much in common, such as public and private
The Classification was developed as a research tool. When the Classification was
published in 1973, Carnegie Commission Chair Clark Kerr wrote that "the Commission
decided to make the Classification available in published form because we felt that it
would be helpful to many individuals and organizations that are engaged in research on higher
education" (emphasis added).
In the three decades since its development, the Carnegie Classification has been
adopted by a wide range of users: researchers, policy makers, funding agencies,
institutional personnel, even news magazines. Institutions commonly invoke their Carnegie
Classification as a concise and consensually understood means of self-description.
Ironically, the Classifications wide acceptance may be its greatest liability, as
its present uses have far exceeded its original purpose.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Present
It is important to note the Classifications
strengths, which in large measure account for its durability.
- The Classification is simple. The category definitions are straightforward, and
require no complex statistical manipulations. It is easy to see how an institutions
classification follows from the data.
- The Classification is objective. Institutions are classified according to
public data on selected dimensions of institutional activity. In other words, they are
classified according to behavior. To the extent that the Classification is thought to
characterize institutional mission, it is mission as enacted by the institution.
- The Classification is analytically useful. Countless studies have demonstrated
the discriminant utility of its categories with respect to a wide range of institutional,
student, and faculty characteristics as well as student outcomes.
- The Classification provides a basis for shared understanding. It gives
researchers, policy makers, and institutional personnel a common language for
characterizing institutions, such that research findings and other analyses are readily
interpreted and compared.
- The Classification has the ring of truth. Many of those who know higher
education find that the institutional groupings make intuitive sense they hang
together. There is disagreement on this assessment, however: Some argue that it is based
on prominent institutions that are clustered in relatively small categories.
The Classifications weaknesses fall into two broad categories: internal ones,
which derive from the way the categories are defined and labeled; and external ones, which
derive from the way the Classification is interpreted and used. Following is a brief
summary of the Classifications internal weaknesses. There are practical reasons for
many of these, but a reasoned critique must acknowledge them.
- Although the Carnegie Classification represented a great leap forward in describing the
diversity of higher education in the United States, it is nevertheless a great
simplification to distill that diversity into a handful of characteristics and a single
way to group institutions.
- The order in which categories are presented, combined with the use of numbered
subcategories, permits the interpretation that the Classification values some categories
over others that it is indeed a ranking, with Research Universities I at the head
of the list.
- Although the Classification is often described as characterizing institutional mission,
it does not attend to the traditional components of mission equally. Research is measured
explicitly (if imperfectly); instruction is addressed only indirectly, through degree
conferrals and field coverage; and service is absent.
- Certain types of institutions are much more finely differentiated than others.
Doctorate-granting institutions 7 percent of the institutional universe in 1994
are divided into four subcategories. Yet two-year colleges 40 percent of the
universe, encompassing a considerable diversity of institutions are not divided
into any subcategories.
- With a few exceptions, the category definitions use absolute cutoffs a particular
number of degrees at a certain level, a particular number of fields represented, or a
particular level of federal funding. While this is an element of the Classifications
desirable simplicity, it introduces a confounding effect of institutional size. As a
result, average enrollment declines systematically from Research I to Masters II
(see graph, below). In The Rise of American Research Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond document the
differences that result when one replaces an aggregate measure of research activity (as is
used in the Classification) with measures that tap research activity on a per capita basis. For example, suppose two institutions with comparable sets of schools, departments,
and programs receive roughly equal amounts of federal research dollars. If one has half as
many faculty members as the other, the similarity with respect to aggregate funding may
conceal considerable differences with respect to the activities of individual faculty
- There are a number of technical shortcomings associated with the measure of research
activity used in the Classification. While a thorough explication is beyond the scope of
this article, a brief summary is in order. The Classification has traditionally used total
federal obligations (as reported by the National Science Foundation) to capture research
activity. While this source has the considerable advantages of reliability and objectivity
(the data are reported by federal agencies, not institutions), it has several shortcomings
as the sole measure of research activity. Not all research is federally funded
(this measure favors fields heavily dependent on federal support, such as biomedical
research); not all federal obligations are related to research; not all federally funded
research is included; and these data cannot track the pass-through of funds between
institutions. Each of these factors compromises our ability to assess an
institutions true level of research activity.
Next, there are external weaknesses difficulties related to the Classification's
impact and usage:
- Its broad acceptance reinforces the notion that there is only one meaningful way to
group institutions, and that those in different categories have little in common.
- Its interpretation as a status hierarchy can have important consequences for
institutions, especially their access to human and fiscal resources. As a result, many
institutions; especially doctorate-granting institutions have adopted "moving
up the Carnegie Classification" as an explicit institutional goal. In effect, the
Classification plays a role in shaping the system that it means to describe: The research
tool has become an unintended policy lever. This has implications for institutions
ability to innovate and, in combination with the uneven attention to the components of
mission described above, raises questions about system-level change and adaptation. To the
extent the Classification exerts normative pressure on the system, there are strong
incentives for institutions to conform to particular models of institutional activity, and
indeed to particular indicators of activity.
The last point is an important one. It is especially ironic in light of the
recommendations made by the Carnegie Commission in one of the first reports to use the
Classification, New Students and New Places (McGraw-Hill, 1971): to preserve or
increase institutional diversity and resist homogenization. Indeed, the Commission
discouraged expansion of "research-type universities granting the Ph.D."
the very model that many institutions emulate in response to the interpretation of the
Classification as a status hierarchy. (This is not to dispute the great value and
importance of the research university model, of course, but simply to highlight the
unintended role the Classification has played in promoting it and thereby shaping
institutional aspiration and action.)
Toward a More Flexible and Comprehensive
Now let us look to the future and think about how
the Classification might be adapted to the present realities of higher education, and how
its weaknesses might be remedied. By 2005, we at the Carnegie Foundation envision
replacing the present single scheme with a series of classifications that will recognize
many dimensions of institutional commonality and difference. The first step toward such a
system will involve the development of a series of indicators that describe institutions
and what they do. This will simply be an extension and elaboration of the present
approach, and will include improved indicators of research activity, but also indicators
that characterize instruction and service activities. Each of these would likely be based
on multiple measures, with appropriate controls for size as needed. We also envision
indicators that capture important elements of institutional resources. After a
"menu" of indicators is developed, they will be combined to produce a series of
classifications. We also anticipate making the indicators available to users interested in
creating their own, customized classifications. Another dimension of the new system will
be differentiation of two-year colleges. (Several promising efforts are currently under
way by analysts outside the Carnegie Foundation, and we are monitoring these efforts with
interest and enthusiasm.)
A system of multiple classifications offers several advantages:
- It acknowledges the complexity and diversity of American higher education, by
recognizing that institutions that resemble one another when viewed through one lens may
look quite different through another lens.
- It better differentiates the classification enterprise from ranking: There will no
longer be a single way to group institutions, exerting a singular homogenizing influence.
- Users of the new classification system will have to think carefully about the dimensions
of institutional variation that are most relevant to a given purpose, and then would
select the classification (or classifications) that best distinguishes institutions along
- Under such a system, there will be less risk associated with institutional innovation:
Adaptation in one direction would not necessarily come at the expense of distinctiveness
in other areas.
Such a system is not without risk or difficulty. The taken-for-granted
nature of the present system will be undermined: Different analysts will employ different
classifications, making it more difficult to compare findings from multiple studies. There
might be disagreement about the appropriate classification for certain purposes, such as
composing peer groups. And the complexity of the new system might discourage its
acceptance: The community might reject it altogether, or simply embrace just one of its
new classifications effectively reproducing the present system. But we are
persuaded that the potential benefits of a new approach are worth these risks. This is an
ambitious undertaking, and its success will depend in large measure on the participation
and assistance of the higher education community. Over the next few years, we will be
counting on that community to help us develop a system that meaningfully characterizes the
great diversity of U.S. higher education.
In the interim, the Carnegie Foundation has announced plans to issue a revised edition
of the Carnegie Classification for release this summer. This revision is primarily
intended to update the Classification, which was last revised in 1994 and is now seriously
out of date. Our plans for the 2000 revision address some of the shortcomings set forth
above while preserving the basic methodology and most of the categories of the present
system (details are available on our website, www.carnegiefoundation.org).
We are currently assessing feedback in response to those plans. This is an interim
solution as we engage the challenging tasks we have set for the 2005 revision.
Alexander C. McCormick is a senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
2000 Edition of the Carnegie Classification:
Summary of Changes to Category Definitions
Only those categories for which substantive changes are planned are listed.
Precise cut points are subject to change pending analysis of new data. See the Carnegie Website for a full list of the 2000
|Research Universities I
50 or more doctorates per year, and $40 million
or more per year in federal support
|Doctoral/Research Universities I
50 or more doctorates per year across at least 15 disciplines
|Research Universities II
50 or more doctorates per year, and $15.5-40 million or more per year in federal
|Doctoral/Research Universities II
10 or more doctorates per year across at least 3 disciplines, or 20 or more doctorates per
|Doctoral Universities I
40 or more doctorates per year across at least 5 disciplines
|[Included in above categories]
|Doctoral Universities II
10 or more doctorates per year across at least 3 disciplines, or 20 or more
doctorates per year total
|[Included in above categories]
|Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Colleges I
40 percent or more of bachelors degrees in liberal arts fields, and
restrictive in admissions*
|Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Colleges I
At least half of undergraduate awards are bachelors degrees, and at least half of
bachelors degrees in liberal arts fields
|Baccalaureate Colleges II
Less than 40 percent of bachelors degrees in liberal arts fields, or less
restrictive in admissions*
|Baccalaureate Colleges II
At least half of undergraduate awards are bachelors degrees, and less than half of
bachelor's degrees in liberal arts fields
[no explicit distinction from Baccalaureate Colleges]
Less than half of undergraduate awards are bachelors degrees
*Admissions selectively indicated by achievement profile of entering
students (high school class rank, and standardized test scores)
|Average Enrollment by
Carnegie Classification, 1994