SAN DIEGO — When a college files a grant application with the U.S. Department of Education, the agency asks for the institution's designation in the Carnegie Classifications, the prominent system that groups together and defines similar institutions.
The top marker, R1, designates very high research activity, and the doctoral universities that receive it often tout it as a mark of prestige.
However, like many rankings in the higher education world, the classifications have been critiqued for too heavily driving institutional decision making, with colleges striving to reach R1 at part of their missions' expense. Critics argue the classifications disadvantage certain institutions with a research bent that can't meet the standards — for instance, not a single historically Black college or university has achieved R1 status.
So what if on the Education Department's grant applications, institutions also had to indicate how successfully they advance students' social and economic mobility? What if that metric could help unlock millions of dollars in federal funds?
Those were questions posed by Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Classifications' new administrator, at the association's annual meeting on Monday.
ACE, with the classification system's owner, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, will incorporate social, racial and economic concerns into a new version of the classifications expected to debut next year.
Representatives from the organizations said Monday they plan by next year's ACE annual meeting to have colleges be able to see where they would fall in a new model.
But some skepticism remains that the allure of performing well on a social and economic metric — and the consequences of ranking poorly on it — would actually alter colleges' behavior, as is the organizations' goal. And higher ed professionals are clamoring for more changes in the system than just a new category.
A new vision
The Carnegie Classifications first published in 1973 and almost instantaneously became a tool for determining a hierarchy among colleges, Mitchell said during the ACE meeting Monday. About 4,000 institutions are included in the classifications.
They are updated regularly, but colleges infrequently move among the tiers. R1 status nonetheless remains coveted by many large, research-oriented institutions.
The desire to reach R1 has caused some colleges to deviate from what they've done best, Mitchell said. The Chronicle of Higher Education outlined in 2018 how colleges attempting to catapult from R2 to R1 status often aggressively go after new laboratory space, research projects and faculty recruitment, but reported concerns over how those moves affected education quality, particularly for undergraduates.
Both Mitchell and Timothy Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation, said during Monday's presentation they don't want to dissuade institutions that can responsibly pursue R1 status from doing so.
But they envision a new lane in the classifications that illuminates the social and economic mobility work some institutions already consider a cornerstone — and hopefully those colleges can be rewarded for it, they said. The social and economic mobility marker would be a separate measure, even if a college had earned R1 status.
"How do we learn from those institutions that are doing this particularly well?" Knowles said. "And then we can create public policy and drive public capital to those places."
Conversely, the two organizations want a classification structure that encourages institutions already at the top in research to mull whether they accomplish enough in the realm of social and economic mobility.
Currently, ACE is putting together three project teams around the classifications: One will handle technical work, another will focus on policy, and the third will specialize in field reporting — what Mitchell described as "truth-tellers."
Reactions to a mobility proposition
But some college leaders doubt either the public or policymakers would give equal weight to a research and a mobility score, with one president of an HBCU telling Higher Ed Dive the federal government will likely continue to funnel funding to those institutions with the best research rankings, even if the classification methodology shifts.
Other conference attendees weighed in on different aspects of the classifications they feel need updating.
Eduardo Ochoa, president of California State University, Monterey Bay, said during discussion that faculty reinforce the perception that a high status is necessary for institutions because they often attended those types of colleges.
He said he'd like to see "an entry point" from ACE and the foundation that would change the way faculty are trained.
And Jamienne Studley, president of the accreditor Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, said that the accreditor supports that idea.
"I think we can align these conversations and partner them really effectively," Studley said.
The classifications will formally move to ACE on March 15. They had been administered at Indiana University since 2014. ACE will run the well-known basic classifications, which encompass R1 and R2 colleges, as well as the newer elective ones, which acknowledge institutional efforts to exchange knowledge and resources with their communities.
Initially, Albion College, a private liberal arts institution in Michigan, intended to house the system, but those plans were abandoned after its president, Mathew Johnson, resigned following a torrent of criticism from students, alumni and employees over his performance and the culture during his tenure.