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What the new Carnegie classifications mean for Alabama universities

In Academia, Scholarship, The Academy on December 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in the Alabama Political Reporter.

The new Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is out. Once operated by the Carnegie Foundation, the so-called “Carnegie classifications” are now run by the School of Education at Indiana University.

The classifications are by university type or category: doctoral universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate / associate colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions, and tribal universities. When you hear people refer to the coveted R-1 status, they’re referring to a sub-classification within the “doctoral universities” category, which until this year trifurcated into “highest research activity” (R-1), “higher research activity” (R-2), and “moderate research activity” (R-3).

Under this taxonomy, Auburn, Alabama, UAB, and UAH were classified as “Doctoral Universities,” whereas Troy, Samford, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State were classified as “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Huntingdon, Stillman, Tuskegee, and Talladega were designated “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

The many universities in Alabama fall into different classifications.  I have mentioned only a few universities not to suggest favor or quality, but to illustrate the spectrum of classification possibilities.

Not long ago, I wrote that “Carnegie should drop the phrases ‘highest research activity,’ higher research activity,’ and ‘moderate research activity’ that accompany the R-1, R-2, and R-3 label because they are misleading: the Carnegie rankings do not measure research activity but research expenditure.” Carnegie has corrected this flaw to some extent, relabeling its R-1 and R-2 categories as “Very high research activity” and “High research activity,” respectively—thereby eliminating the “er” and “est” suffixes (in “higher” and “highest”) that indicated the comparative and superlative degree (i.e., that made certain universities sound better than others).

So where do Alabama universities fall in the new 2018 classifications?  

Auburn, Alabama, and UAB are the only Alabama universities in the R-1 category. UAH is an R-2. Troy, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State remain “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Tuskegee entered that category. Samford is now classified under the heading “Doctoral / Professional Universities” that did not exist in earlier classifications. This category accounts for professional-practice degrees like juris doctorates or medical degrees.

Huntington, Stillman, and Talladega remain “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

If you’re curious about the classification of your alma mater or favorite Alabama university, you can search the listings here.

It would be a mistake to treat these classifications as a hierarchal ranking of quality.  They are, rather, descriptive differentiations that inform the public about the size and spending of universities. The only category in which universities receive something like a vertical ranking is “Doctoral Universities,” which tier universities according to their alleged “research activity.”

Eric Kelderman points out that “critics wonder whether going for more research money and a higher Carnegie classification really has more to do with elevating institutional image, and comes at the expense of academic quality—particularly for undergraduates.” This is a profound concern.

The Carnegie classifications could incentivize malinvestment in doctoral degrees and number of faculty members. The job market for humanities faculty is shrinking while the number of humanities doctorates is rising, but to achieve their desired Carnegie classifications, universities continue to churn out humanities Ph.Ds. who have diminishing chances of landing tenure-track positions.

The Carnegie classifications don’t measure research quality, either. One university could spend millions on research with negligible outcomes while another could spend little on research yet yield high-quality, groundbreaking scholarship.

The Carnegie classifications are not perfect, but they command attention among administrators in higher education and can involve public funds. For that reason alone, anyone who has a stake or interest in a university in Alabama should pay attention too.


Want to Go From R-2 to R-1? Don’t Look to Law Schools to Help

In Academia, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy on March 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

Say you’re an administrator at a university classified as a “doctoral university” by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions on Higher Education. You’re currently ranked in the R-2 category, meaning your school has a higher degree of research activity, but not enough to get you into that coveted R-1 spot for highest research activity. Your president and board of trustees have pushed you and other administrators to elevate your school’s ranking to R-1.  What should you do?  How can you accomplish a jump in rankings?

Here are four steps to get you started. However, there is one thing, historically, you should not do to move from R-2 to R-1: rely on your law school for a boost.

Professional degrees like a law degree (J.D.) do not count toward a school’s total number of research doctorates awarded according to the metrics used by Carnegie to classify universities. Law schools, at least in theory, teach legal doctrines and equip students with the professional skills necessary to practice law (whether law schools have succeeded in this mission is another matter). Yet law schools by and large do not train students to become scholars or to conduct scholarly research—hence the Carnegie “post-baccalaureate” designation.

Carnegie (which is now run out of Indiana University, not the Carnegie Foundation) treats law degrees as post-baccalaureate credentials, or professional-practice doctorates, but not as research degrees. For this reason, among others, Carnegie generally does not measure research and development expenditures in law schools. The fields Carnegie considers for these benchmarks are science and engineering (S&E), humanities, social science, STEM, business, education, public policy, and social work.

Universities report to the federal government the classification of their degrees (e.g., research or professional) by academic program. Data for this reporting are publicly available through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Law schools like the one at Berkeley, which offers a Ph.D. in jurisprudence and social policy, report degree credentials besides just the professional-practice doctorate (J.D.). The most recent available data come from the 2015-16 academic year, when Berkeley reported 332 professional-practice law degrees and 13 research-scholarship degrees. Thus, the law school at Berkeley probably contributed to that school’s R-1 status as a doctoral university with highest research activity.

University investment in law schools that do not offer research Ph.Ds. (or their equivalent, such as an S.J.D. or J.S.D.) is a reallocation of resources away from programs and departments that could help your school move from R-2 to R-1.

Before year’s end, Carnegie will have updated its classifications. The last time it updated its classifications was 2015. Carnegie has begun updating its classifications on a 5-year cycle rather than a 3-year cycle to, in its words, “better reflect the rapidly changing higher education landscape.”

The latest updates will change not only rankings but also how J.D.s are assessed. Law degrees “have previously not been considered as part of the Basic Classification methodology,” Carnegie states. But the revised methodology allegedly will account for law degrees in new ways. “We will soon release a proposal for this change and solicit feedback regarding our plans from the higher education community,” Carnegie submits.

The Carnegie rankings remain a point of pride and competition between universities. They are high priorities for university presidents and administrators because the United States Department of Education relies on them, they contribute to a university’s prestige, and they can affect a university’s eligibility for grant money.

Depending on the methodological revisions Carnegie adopts for its classifications, having a productive law school might, in the future, push a university from R-2 to R-1. Funding law faculty research potentially could yield significant returns in terms of Carnegie rankings—but probably not in 2018.

Much remains unknown about the future of the Carnegie rankings. It’s unlikely the J.D. will be reclassified as a research doctorate any time soon, if ever. And it’s thus unlikely research and development expenditures on law schools will help universities looking to move from R-2 to R-1. (To be classified as an R-1 doctoral university with highest research activity, your university must offer 20 research-based or scholarship-based degrees.)

In short, you should tell your university president and board of trustees to hold off on investing additional, substantial sums in law schools—at least for the purposes of moving from R-2 to R-1. It’s better to wait and see how the Carnegie changes play out and then to respond accordingly. Fortunately, the wait won’t be long. We’ll know more in the coming months.


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