Special Features

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  • 08.14.23

Reimagining the Carnegie Classifications: A Q&A

  • by Sara Gast and Mushtaq Gunja

The American Council on Education (ACE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced in February 2022 that they would partner on reimagining the Carnegie Classifications. As part of that agreement, the Universal and Elective Classifications have been brought together under a single organizational home at ACE.

The two organizations are working to update and modernize the classifications to meet a primary goal of the foundation, which is to ensure that the classifications are an effective tool for grouping similar institutions in ways that support those seeking to advance the sector. As the Carnegie Classifications approach their 50th anniversary, the methodology used to classify institutions has scarcely changed, and much of what worked 50 years ago does not make sense today.

ACE is now working to reimagine the Basic Classification and to devise a new Social and Economic Mobility Classification. This revised classification system will organize and recognize institutions based on a variety of characteristics, including those that focus on student access and outcomes. The reimagined classifications will be more transparent and provide more appropriate peer groupings for collaboration and study. They will provide data and methodology in clear ways that give institutional researchers more tools to help them analyze the diverse and multi-dimensional landscape of American higher education. Funders—federal and state governments as well as private philanthropies—will be better equipped to account for and reward student-centric activity.

What is the vision and purpose behind the new approach?

As researchers know, the Carnegie Classifications are a system for organizing the diverse universe of degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. They were originally intended to be a tool to study higher education, but they now are embedded in policies and use-cases throughout the sector. Given their purpose and diverse application, this new partnership with ACE and the Carnegie Foundation will develop new and refined versions of the classifications that better reflect in contemporary terms the public purpose, mission, focus, and impact of higher education—making the classifications more modern and usable for a variety of purposes.

The current Carnegie Classifications system operates in two domains. The Universal Classifications are based on publicly available data and are applied to all higher education institutions. This includes the Basic Classification, which organizes all U.S. colleges and universities into peer groups by the highest degree they award, along with five other universal classifications that look at specific characteristics of an institution, like its graduate instructional profile. The second domain subsumes the Elective Classifications, for which colleges can apply and be recognized for extraordinary commitment to, investment in, and accomplishment at various institutional missions and priorities. The 2024 Elective Classifications include Community Engagement and Leadership for Public Purpose. Additional topics are being considered.

The revised classifications system will shift the framework from a focus on degrees and research to a broader consideration that also factors in student characteristics and outcomes. More generally, the Carnegie Classifications will recognize institutions for a more diverse range of priorities and provide multi-dimensional ways of organizing and studying the higher education landscape.

What new methodologies are we going to use, and what is going to happen with the research classification?

The current Basic Classification is one way of sorting institutions, but for most campuses, the highest degree awarded is only a narrow part of an institution’s work. The classification has become hierarchical over time, and as a result, many institutions see the path “up” is to offer doctoral and master’s degrees and to pursue research in the quest for very high research activity (R1) or high research activity (R2) status. In some places, we fear the chase for an R1 or R2 designation may come at the expense of an institution’s core missions, like service to the community and undergraduate instruction.

Work is underway on a new structure and methodology for the Basic Classification. The goal is to land on a classifications system that organizes institutions not just based on the single characteristic of highest degree awarded, but instead by an array of components like instructional program mix, degree and certificate profile, size and location, and more. While the exact data or variables have not been chosen, those are the types of characteristics that are being explored as we consider the best approach for grouping similar types of institutions based on how they operate today.

In tandem, we also are considering how to group institutions by the types and amount of research they do. Feedback has been clear that institutions would like a fairer, cleaner, and more transparent methodology, and we expect to announce that this fall. To put it succinctly, there will be a set of research designations and an “R1” and “R2” list will exist, but the methodology will be simpler and more inclusive.

In addition, a new Social and Economic Mobility Classification will group institutions by looking at a variety of relevant student characteristics and student outcomes. Over the past several months, we have been exploring data, structure, and methodological options for this classification with our Technical Review Panel, and we will share more for feedback soon.

Institutions ultimately will receive multiple universal classifications, including a revised Basic Classification, a Social and Economic Mobility classification, and a research designation if applicable.

What is the timeline and plan for moving this work to fruition?

The revised Basic and Social and Economic Mobility Classifications will be released in early 2025. Ahead of that, the Carnegie Classifications will share news and developments on several fronts. In fall 2023, the methodology for the updated Basic Classification and research designations will be unveiled, and the framework for the new Social and Economic Mobility category will be released by the end of the year.

This is in keeping with the traditional schedule of updating the classifications every three years. Higher education leaders, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders can stay informed of updates and the timeline on the new, comprehensive Carnegie Classifications website.

How can you provide ideas and feedback to the Carnegie Classifications team?

As noted above, more information will be shared later this year on the updated methodology for both the Basic Classification and the new Social and Economic Mobility Classifications. Several means of sharing feedback will be provided at that time to allow researchers and other stakeholders to share ideas with the classifications team for consideration. You can always send a message via email email to: carnegie@acenet.edu.


Nic RichmondSara Gast and Mushtaq Gunja are the deputy executive director and executive director, respectively, for the Carnegie Classifications.

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