To the Editor:
The series of articles titled “Is Climbing the Research Rankings Worth the Price?” (The Chronicle, July 29), portrays well an unintended consequence of the Carnegie Classifications. Developed as a taxonomy that provides descriptive distinctions between types of higher-education institutions in the U.S. (horizontal differentiation), it has garnered disproportionate attention for one notable vertical component of the taxonomy: the subcategorization of Doctoral Universities by level of research activity, which results in what is generally viewed as a “top tier” designation that is colloquially known as Research 1 or R1.
As director of the Carnegie Classifications, I along with my predecessor, Alex McCormick, have noted in several of our publications that the “levels of research activity” distinctions among Doctoral Universities has contributed to an unfortunate conflation of research activity with quality or excellence, in opposition to the original purpose of the Classifications. It is interesting to note that Master’s Colleges and Universities are further differentiated by size (number of degrees conferred), which people do not typically relate directly to quality. Similarly, having more research activity does not directly indicate differences in quality.
The most recent version (2015 update) of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education encompasses 4,665 postsecondary institutions, including 334 doctoral universities or just over 7 percent of the total. There are 115 R1 universities, representing 2.5 percent of the total. Although these are large institutions that account for 16 percent of all higher-education enrollments, they represent a small portion of the U.S. higher-education landscape. U.S. research universities are recognized for their excellence internationally, but the quality of the U.S. system is uniquely expressed through the diversity of institutions that serve a larger proportion of the populace than in most countries. Although a few countries have higher postsecondary participation rates, they do not serve as diverse a population.
As we prepare to release the 2018 update later this year, we plan to include a new distinction between professional and research doctoral universities. The R1 category will not go away, but we seek to establish more clearly descriptive distinctions among the broad spectrum of U.S. postsecondary institutions.
Finally, I commend the article in the series contributed by President Gary Olsen as it appropriately conveyed several of these important points.
Victor M.H. Borden
Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs
Director, Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education
Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research