Carnegie Matters

Brian Taylor

February 22, 2011

In January, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced the results of its most recent classification of colleges and universities. Its previous round of assessment occurred in 2005.

Faculty members and administrations across higher education had eagerly awaited the announcement. A friend of mine who serves as a president of a public university in the South told me that he had spent the last three years leading an effort to position his institution to advance to the next level in Carnegie's designations.

"Our faculty and administration worked in a meticulous way to bring us to that next level," he told me, "and we were all quite gratified when we received notification from the Carnegie people that we had been successful."

Another president was not so successful. She told me that she had attempted to increase various factors on which institutions are judged (the number of doctoral programs, number of doctorates granted, number of postdocs, and so on) to levels that would raise the institution in the "basic classification" designations, but had fallen short.

"We need to become a bit more sophisticated and mature as an institution," she said, "before we will advance to that next rank."

While the Carnegie classifications seem to be watched by most everyone in higher education, there is some confusion about the system and its significance. The foundation classifies the 4,633 institutions of higher education from the smallest, associate-level colleges to the most complex research universities. In doing so, it establishes a valuable continuum on which an institution can assess its complexity and academic diversity.

The confusion derives from conflating the Carnegie continuum with the various "best college" ranking systems, such as the ubiquitous U.S. News & World Reports rankings.

The Carnegie foundation's Web site points out that the classification system was developed for the purpose of describing institutional diversity and is, therefore, not a ranking system. It describes an institution according to its undergraduate and graduate instructional programs, its enrollment and undergraduate profiles, its size and setting, and—the category that receives so much attention—its basic classification.

By focusing on describing and classifying institutions, the Carnegie classifications avoid the thankless and impossible task of attempting to judge which institution is superior to another. It is a descriptive, not an evaluative system. In contrast, most of the "best college" rankings set out to do just that: They produce rankings that claim—either explicitly or tacitly—to make qualitative distinctions among institutions.

What makes the Carnegie system particularly valuable is that it relies entirely on official data from federal agencies, primarily the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation. It does not solicit data directly from the institutions or conduct opinion surveys. Consequently, its results are especially reliable.

In contrast, for example, U.S. News relies on surveys and data directly from the institutions. The Princeton Review draws heavily on an extensive survey of student opinions. For its college rankings, Newsweek considers student surveys and a range of data available in the popular media, among other factors. Forbes even factors in (for a full 25 percent of its formula) student evaluations of professors as posted on

Clearly, those are significantly different types of methodologies from the independent, data-driven formula of the Carnegie classifications. Of course, the "best college" rankings are aimed at prospective students and their parents, while the Carnegie classifications are meant to provide faculty members and administrators with an analytical tool that helps them make valid comparisons and enhance their strategic planning.

That said, institutions have traditionally used the Carnegie system in a host of ways not envisioned by the foundation. Some even use it as a kind of ranking. The two presidents who were attempting to lead their institutions to the next level on the Carnegie continuum were using the classification system as a measure of their progress toward becoming more mature and complex institutions.

In fact, a number of institutions establish in their strategic plans the goal of rising in the Carnegie classifications. That is often a worthy goal because it helps an institution focus on increasing its diversity and complexity.

And traveling up the continuum can have many positive consequences for an institution. In the 1980s I was on the faculty of an institution that rose—quite deliberately, I might add—from Research II to Research I status, categories in Carnegie's original classification system. The prestige that the new designation brought to the university was apparent to all, and a source of great pride among the faculty.

Higher Carnegie status tends to open doors for an institution, perhaps because the confidence level in the institution is higher. Thanks to that higher level of confidence, an institution will very likely enjoy an enhanced ability to attract external grants for research. An institution would most likely be more attractive as a partner to industry, as well. The higher status may also increase an institution's ability to negotiate a higher indirect cost rate for grants from the federal government.

Higher status not only improves an institution's ability to recruit high-quality faculty members, postdocs, and graduate students, it also strengthens the justification for increasing the salaries of faculty and staff members when funding becomes available. That's because faculty salary comparisons, such as Oklahoma State University's well-regarded "Faculty Salary Survey by Discipline," often use the Carnegie classifications as a way of sorting salary levels.

An institution's Carnegie status can also enhance its graduates' attractiveness to prospective employers and to prestigious graduate and professional schools. The Carnegie classifications have become so associated with institutional prestige that they are the cause of competition and even envy between some institutions, as traditional rivals jockey for higher placement.

I know of one perennial state rivalry in which two institutions engaged in a healthy competition with one another in practically every aspect of collegiate life, including athletics, academics, and the arts. One of the two institutions is one level above the other in the Carnegie continuum—a source of great pride for one president and of frustration for the other. The two presidents recently made a friendly wager on whether the lower-ranked institution would rise during the recent reassessment.

I won't reveal who won the bet, but the fact that competition, envy, and friendly wagers are often associated with an institution's Carnegie classification is but one indication that it has become and continues to be a key way that we measure our institutional progress.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm), newly released in paperback. He can be contacted at