Posted on April 1, 2022

Injecting Equity Into the Carnegie Classifications

Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2022

The Carnegie classifications are an enduring institution in higher education, but they’re about to undergo a facelift that could be dramatic.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, explored news that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching had chosen the American Council on Education to help it remake and run the main system we use to differentiate among types of colleges and universities.

Tim Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation, and Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, discussed the partnership and why the time is right to refresh the classifications. The conversation explored their plan to add a significant focus on whether and how much colleges and universities contribute to social mobility and racial equity, potentially by creating an entirely new classification that would sort institutions by the degree to which they’re engines of mobility and equity.


Inside Higher Ed: Tim, the classifications are obviously a foundational part of what the Carnegie Foundation currently does, and I’m sure that finding the right home for them was probably a top priority for you. Can you tell us a bit about how this process unfolded and why you landed on ACE?

Knowles: When the Carnegie Foundation was thinking about who the right partners were for becoming a home for the classifications for the next five or so years, we were really thinking on three fronts. First was the convening power, and clearly, ACE engages institutions of higher ed nationally, globally. Ultimately, the power of the classifications [is] going to be based on their utility, and ensuring they’re redesigned and reimagined with the postsecondary sector is key. The second thing that was important to us was policy traction. And ACE obviously has a very long history of impact on higher education policy going way back to the creation of the GED, the GI Bill and many more examples in more contemporary ways.

Carnegie, too, has had an important policy role: Pell Grants, TIAA-CREF, GRE, Educational Testing Service, etc. Being sure that the classifications actually were going to be undergirded over time by coherent and supportive policy was important to us as well.

And finally, the willingness to think ahead with integrity and try to think clearly about what are our big challenges globally, and nationally. And how can the higher education sector writ large help to address those big challenges? First and foremost on that list is the social and economic mobility challenge. And there was tremendous alignment with ACE on trying to think about that one in creative ways.

Inside Higher Ed: Ted, why was ACE interested in taking on these classifications? How does it fit into your overall strategy for the organization?

Mitchell: Picking up on Tim’s points on the three vectors, I’ll walk back through them. ACE has been focused for several years now on the importance of equity—racial equity, social mobility. We’ve been doing as much as we can on the program side. And also on the visibility side to highlight institutions that have been all-stars in producing upward mobility for students. Our board reflects that idea. And certainly our program development around equity-based leadership, the race and equity analysis of higher education—all of those things have continued to point us to the social importance of these issues. So the opportunity to work with Carnegie and to work with Tim and his colleagues, to build that into how the core classification system, how we think about higher education in the country is something that we’ve been pushing around inside ACE for some time.

Second, I think, on the policy side, Tim is right and generous. Both Carnegie and ACE have been very active in policy work, on some of the most fundamental changes in higher education. It’s time that we teamed up on those and not just work on parallel paths, but team up for the next generation of real change, which is to broaden the aperture and to create identifiable lanes of excellence for institutions. ACE is the only association that represents all institutions, two-year and four-year, public and private. And because we sit there in the ecosystem, we understand how much it matters to institutions to be represented, to have their missions, their excellence, their work, be represented in the classification system. And we think that over the next several years, we’ll be able to build that kind of robust three-dimensional view of institutional excellence.


Inside Higher Ed: Ted, what’s your sense of what is working and what isn’t with the current classifications?

Mitchell: Let’s remember in the late 1960s, early 1970s, one of the things we needed to understand better was the distribution of research across American higher education institutions. From the very beginning, the classification system did a terrific job, and still does a terrific job, of identifying those institutions whose mission is really focused on high-level big science and other kinds of research. It played a very important role in signifying to the public, to agencies, to institutions themselves, who was doing what kind of work, especially in the area of research.

The classification systems were less sharp as they moved through the different categories. If we were to ask Inside Higher Ed readers to name five Carnegie classifications, they could probably do three, all three of them starting with “R,” and I don’t think that that’s accidental. To Tim’s point, after 50 years, I think it’s right for us to take a look, is that still exactly what we want to focus on? Is that what we need to understand?

I think our answer is yes, we should continue to focus on that. But I think that we are really struck by a number of the critiques of higher education about whether higher education is just an elite institution serving the elites, whether it really does generate racial equity, social mobility, opportunities for people to climb the economic ladder to join the American dream. And we want to highlight that as we go forward. Things have changed in the ecosystem [in 50 years].


Inside Higher Ed: When actual rankings try to respond to criticism that they incentivize less-than-ideal institutional behavior, they tend to alter or more often tweak their criteria by minimizing the weight given to certain factors or embedding new ones. To what extent do you envision accomplishing your goals by reconfiguring the main classification to de-emphasize research or focus more on other factors, versus—and this would be the other way to go—adding a new and separate classification that would supplement the core categorization?

Knowles: That’s the work ahead of us. And we want to do that in an inclusive and collaborative way, which is one of the reasons ACE was such an important partner, so we could enlist tribal colleges, HBCUs, big research elites and everything else in guiding what these decisions are. My second answer is there remains value, as Ted just said, in creating typologies that differentiate between certain kinds of activities, whether it’s delivering two-year degrees or delivering lots of teachers and social workers to the field or delivering large bodies of STEM-related research activity.

I’ll say this, just to sort of capture the challenge of the R-1 becoming a destination for everyone. One of my first conversations when I became the president of the foundation was with the president of an HBCU, who said to me, point-blank, “Tim, guess how many HBCUs are R-1s?” And I said, “I think I know the answer to that.” And he said, “Yeah, and it’ll take me 100 years to get there.”

So when you have a classification system that suddenly becomes normative, and a destination, that’s why we have to rethink it, because those very HBCUs are doing, in some cases, as much or more for the country in terms of addressing another fundamental problem in income inequality, and social and economic mobility, as any of the elite research institutions may be doing. That’s why we think this is such an important time to build a more comprehensive picture and create multiple destinations, if they have to be destinations.

Mitchell: The HBCU example is an important one, because it speaks to the different ways that institutions can be excellent. If you look at the percentage of young men and women of color who leave HBCUs and go on and get Ph.D.s, especially Black scientists, there’s an overwhelming overrepresentation of HBCU graduates among that list. And yet the current classification system doesn’t have a way of rewarding that.

Similarly, among regional comprehensive institutions, there are social mobility rates that are far greater than there are in many of the flagship research universities. That’s not to deny the importance of the flagship research universities as engines of social mobility. But where do those regional comprehensives get to point and get their letters framed?

What we’re after here is, again, not to diminish the role of America’s great research universities—it is a part of what makes our education system great. But the first sentence that I learned when I came to ACE was that the greatness of American higher education lies in its diversity. That is true. And we want to recognize that diversity.

Inside Higher Ed: Just to clarify: recognizing that this is a work in progress, is there a decision that is going to have to be made about whether to incorporate those factors through a new, separate classification of some kind, rather than through a revision of the core one we’re all familiar with?

Mitchell: The quick answer is the one that Tim gave a moment ago. That is the work, and so there will be decisions. Right now, we do see the creation of a differentiated set of indicators around racial equity and social mobility. We don’t know if that’s how it will end up. Even if it is an independent categorization within the universal classification, we know that we have to work internally to make sure that that is coherent, responsible. We think we need to build it, and then we’ll decide whether it’s independent or whether it is an augmentation to the basic.

Inside Higher Ed: Tim, why are racial equity and social mobility so essential to build into the classifications at this particular moment in whatever way you ultimately decide to go?

Knowles: I’ll just point to two pieces of research. One is Raj Chetty’s work on economic mobility, which basically paints an incredibly stark picture of decreasing mobility over the last 50 years, and though he hasn’t yet updated it for this current generation, there’s every expectation that economic mobility is really going backwards in this country.

The other piece of research, less well heralded but equally important—perhaps more so—is the work done by the Federal Reserve, Duke and economists at the New School, which looked at net income of families by race. On average, the net worth of a white family was $247,000; on average the economic net worth of a Puerto Rican family was $3,020. And on average, the number for a Black family was $8. This isn’t saying higher education is the reason for that. However, higher education is an instrumental variable in addressing that, and that’s why [we need] to elevate social and economic mobility, in my view, in a much more serious way, if we want to get ahead of a problem that is instrumental not just to the nation’s economy, but to the democracy.