How the New Carnegie Classifications Scrambled College Rankings

Carnegie classifications are one of the wonkiest, most inside baseball concepts in the world of higher education policy. Updated every three years by the good folks at Indiana University, these classifications serve as a useful tool to group similar colleges based on their mix of programs, degree offerings, and research intensity. And since I have been considered “a reliable source of deep-weeds wonkery” in the past, I wrote about the most recent changes to Carnegie classifications earlier this year.

But for most people outside institutional research offices, the first time the updated Carnegie classifications really got noticed was with this fall’s college rankings season. Both the Washington Monthly rankings that I compile and the U.S. News rankings that I get asked to comment about quite a bit rely on Carnegie classifications to define the group of national universities. We both use the Carnegie doctoral/research university category for this, putting master’s institutions to a master’s university category (us) or regional universities (U.S. News). With the number of Carnegie research universities spiking from 334 in the 2015 classifications to 423 in the most recent 2018 classifications, this introduces a bunch of new universities into the national rankings.

To be more exact, 92 universities appeared in Washington Monthly’s national university rankings for the first time this year, with nearly all of these universities coming out of the master’s rankings last year. The full dataset of these colleges and their rankings in both the US News and Washington Monthly rankings can be downloaded here, but I will highlight a few colleges that cracked the top 100 in either ranking below:

Santa Clara University: #54 in US News, #137 in Washington Monthly

Loyola Marymount University: #64 in US News, #258 in Washington Monthly

Gonzaga University: #79 in US News, #211 in Washington Monthly

Elon University: #84 in US News, #282 in Washington Monthly

Rutgers University-Camden: #166 in US News, #57 in Washington Monthly

Towson University: #197 in US News, #59 in Washington Monthly

Mary Baldwin University: #272 in US News, #35 in Washington Monthly

These new colleges appearing in the national university rankings means that other colleges got squeezed down the rankings. Given the priority that many colleges and their boards place on the US News rankings, it’s a tough day on some campuses. Meanwhile, judging by press releases, the new top-100 national universities are probably having a good time right now.

Author: Robert

I am an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

2 thoughts on “How the New Carnegie Classifications Scrambled College Rankings”

  1. Robert, would you mind saying a little bit more about the rationale for relabeling the Carnegie research university classifications as “national” universities? It may be somewhat reasonable to imply or infer a national impact in terms of research but that label, especially when contrasted with USN&WR’s “regional” label. But I worry that the “national” labels also seems to imply a national student recruiting base that seems like a really big leap to make from a classification that is made solely from the number of doctorates awarded and research expenditures. (Or maybe I’m just too focused on admissions right now after having read several of the recent articles by or about Paul Tough as he promotes his new book.)

    1. This has become more of a concern with the changes in Carnegie classifications. I see three possible solutions:

      (1) Keep following Carnegie. Although it’s imperfect, it’s defensible.
      (2) Cut R3s out of the national university category. Many are regional in focus, but some want to be national.
      (3) Ask colleges what they want. But this invites gaming and response rates would be an issue as well as burden on rankers.

      I defaulted to (1) this year, but I’m open to considering the others.

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