Reflections on a Year Studying Carnegie’s Basic Classification and a Look Ahead

By Mushtaq Gunja and Sara Gast

As the work continues to modernize and reimagine the Carnegie Classifications, we want to share insights we have gained as we look toward the release by early 2025 of a new set of classifications that will include a new research classification methodology.

The Carnegie Classifications were created to be a tool to organize the diverse universe of approximately 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States to further the study of higher education. But the world — and American postsecondary education — has changed tremendously over the past half century. That is why the American Council on Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching are collaborating to develop new and more refined versions of the classifications to better reflect in contemporary terms the public purpose, mission, focus and impact of higher education.

The most well-known component of the Carnegie Classifications is the Basic classification, which places all U.S. colleges and universities into peer groups based on the highest degree awarded. This classification has been released 10 times in its 50 years of existence. Sometimes there have been major changes, as with the creation of the Baccalaureate/Associate’s Colleges Classification. Sometimes the changes have been more minor, as when small adjustments were made to the methodology of the Special Focus Institutions. In recent years, the classifications have been reissued every three years. We plan to remain on the same three-year cycle and release the revised classifications by early 2025.

The current Basic classification is one way to sort American colleges and universities, but it fails to recognize the wide range of institutional missions that exist today. In addition, this degree-based classification has become hierarchical over time, with most of the attention focused on doctorate-granting universities. Institutions often view the R1 (doctoral universities with very high research activity) category within the Basic classification as the “best” colleges in the country and a prize to be sought, often with the belief that prestige, funding, faculty and students will follow. As a result, an increasing number of institutions award doctoral degrees and conduct research in a quest to be categorized as R1 or R2 (doctoral universities with high research activity). Expanding a research enterprise might be a perfectly worthwhile goal for some institutions, but the current Basic classification reduces our doctoral institutions merely to the amount of research they do and ignores other institutional missions around teaching, learning and serving the community. Moreover, based on our experience over the past year, we worry that the classifications are not properly capturing how much research is actually happening. For these reasons, we think it is time to revisit how the Carnegie Classifications designate research activity.

This will not be the first time the classification’s research methodology has undergone changes. Part of the original premise of the Carnegie Classifications was to categorize institutions by knowledge production, which has meant doctoral institutions generally have been organized in some capacity by research. The two categories commonly referred to as R1 and R2 were included in the inaugural classification. The criteria was simple: Research I was limited to the top 50 institutions by federal grants received, and Research II essentially was the rest of the top 100, with a few additional components. This definition was reset and revised in 1987 and 1994. When the classification criteria were changed again in 2000, the R1 and R2 labels were dropped, and the terminology was shifted to “extensive” and “intensive” doctoral production. In 2005, the methodology for the research classification was revised once more to consider broader research activity and made much more complex.

That methodology, which remains in use today, has proven challenging to navigate. It starts out simply enough: Any university that annually awards at least 20 research doctoral degrees and spends at least $5 million on research qualifies at least for R2 status. But determining which of those universities should be categorized as R1 involves an evaluation of institutional data with a complicated 10-metric formula that uses normative and relative scores. The result is an opaque process and a moving target that makes it impossible to determine exactly what a university must do to become classified as R1. There is also a cap on the number of institutions that could be considered as having “very high research activity.”

Additionally, while the “very high research activity” label is intended to be just that—a group of institutions that are doing large amounts of research—the current formula measures that concept through the lens of a comprehensive research profile. These are institutions that offer STEM, humanities, social science and other types of research degrees and spend research funding in both science and engineering and non-science and non-engineering fields. This approach to defining “very high research activity” has resulted in several types of institutions not being included in the R1 category despite doing significant amounts of research. For instance, no Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are currently classified as R1. Historical and systemic racism in funding opportunities is partly to blame. Another culprit is the Carnegie Classifications’ complex methodology that disadvantages institutions, including public universities whose state legislatures or governing boards restrict the programs they can offer, that conduct research in a limited number of fields. This methodology minimizes the recognition of research activity at regional public institutions more than it does at private and flagship state universities.

We also have received quite a bit of feedback about the non-research sections of the Basic classification. Like the research portion of the Basic Classification, the other categories in the classification also have undergone changes over the years. In 1994, a Tribal Colleges and Universities group was added. In 2000, as we noted above, a Baccalaureate/Associate’s Colleges Classification was created to recognize institutions that granted both bachelor and associate degrees. But for the most part, the overarching structure of the classification has remained the same: Institutions are primarily categorized by the highest degree they award.

One consistent theme we have heard is that institutions have changed greatly over the past 50 years and, accordingly, the classifications could use a modern refresh. Institutions have told us that the current framework of applying a single label (e.g., Master’s Colleges and Universities: Medium Programs) is too limiting and does not best describe the interesting and important work that they’re doing. We also have observed that some classification categories have grown extremely large over time. That has resulted in groups that contain a variety of different types of institutions — which goes against the purpose of a classification system. We are currently studying how we might adjust the current classification categories to better describe the richness and diversity of today’s colleges and universities without relying solely on the highest degree offered.

As we noted, the revised classifications (and the new Social and Economic Mobility classification) will be released in early 2025. We plan to issue more updates as we get closer to that date. Look for more specifics later this fall on the forthcoming revisions.

Mushtaq Gunja and Sara Gast are executive director and deputy executive director, respectively, of the Carnegie Classifications.