How Carnegie Classification Updates Could Affect State Higher Education Policy

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Written by: Mushtaq Gunja and Sara Gast
Jan. 30, 2024

This post comes to us from Mushtaq Gunja, executive director, and Sara Gast, deputy executive director, at the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. All views expressed in this post are those of the authors. If you have any questions regarding changes to the Carnegie Classifications, you can contact the organization.

Since 1973, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education has served as the predominant framework to classify American colleges and universities. It was originally created for researchers as a way of organizing the higher education sector, but since the release over 50 years ago, the classifications have informed many policies, reporting structures and benchmarking tools. These policies, structures and tools will likely be affected by changes to the classifications starting in 2025. 

Since these classifications have influence on institutional behavior and policies that govern higher education, the American Council on Education and the Carnegie Foundation have engaged institutional leaders, policymakers, organization leaders, reporters and other key stakeholders who interact with the classifications to consider updates over the past two years. In these conversations, we heard countless examples of how the classifications are baked into state and federal policy.  

For example, a policy may use the classifications to define what makes an institution an associate college or doctoral university. These definitions may affect funding formulas, such as funding associate colleges at different levels than baccalaureate colleges. Faculty pay can be impacted by an institution’s Carnegie Classification as can state performance funding. Some states provide additional funds for institutions to pursue a Carnegie research designation. And there are some federal grants that are restricted to R2 or to non-R1 institutions 

Beyond funding, accrediting agencies often use the classifications in determining peer groups or site visits. State and federal agencies may report data by Carnegie Classification grouping, and it can be a useful comparison tool to see how an institution sits within a national context. They also are part of the underlying methodology for the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges lists. In short, the Carnegie Classifications have an influence on institutional behavior and on the policies and systems that govern U.S. higher education – and that is why we want to make sure policymakers are aware of what is coming.  

As stated above, most of these use cases will be impacted by changes to the classifications starting in 2025. Our November 2023 announcement described how the classifications are being modernized to more accurately describe and classify the current higher education landscape. That means policymakers might want to examine statutes, higher education policies and regulations for Carnegie names and terms so they understand where these changes will impact their decisions, policies or implementation processes. 

Excitingly, we are also looking to do more than just modernize the existing structure. We are creating a new classification system that groups institutions by the social and economic mobility that they provide students. At a broad level, the classification will group similar types of institutions and look at the access they are providing to students as well as the outcomes those students experience. As policymakers consider how they want to make funding and governance decisions, this new system could be a lens that better aligns with their strategic priorities than the legacy classification.     

We welcome ideas and suggestions from users of the classifications, particularly policymakers, on how to make them more useful. Please use this feedback form if you would like to participate. 

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