How Colleges’ Carnegie Classifications Have Changed Over Time

NOTE: This post was updated on February 2, 2022 to reflect substantial changes between the initial and final Carnegie data releases.

Every three years, Indiana University’s Center on Postsecondary Research has updated Carnegie classifications–a key measure of prestige for some colleges that helps define peer groups. Much of the higher education community looks closely at these lists, and doesn’t hesitate to share their opinions about whether they are correctly classified.

The 2021 version includes many different types of classifications based on different institutional characteristics. But the basic classification (based on size, degrees awarded, and research intensity) always garners the most attention from the higher education community. I took a look at the 2018 update three years ago, and this post provides an updated analysis of the 2021 classifications.

The item that always gets the most attention in the Carnegie classifications is Research 1 (research universities: very high activity) status, as this is based on research metrics and is a key indicator of prestige. The R1 line has continued to grow, moving from 96 universities in 2005 to 146 in 2021. Notably, nine additional universities were added to the R1 list between the initial data release in December 2021 and the final release in January 2022. This includes three universities that were initially moved down to R2 and successfully managed to get moved back through either correcting data errors or appealing their classification.

YearR1R2R3Total
2021146134189469
2018131132161423
2015115107112334
20101089889295
20059610281279

At the two-year level, there are competing trends of institutional consolidations in the for-profit sector and more community colleges offering bachelor’s degree programs. The number of baccalaureate/associate colleges declined substantially in 2021 (going from 269 in 2018 to 202 in 2021), but this is mainly driven by reclassifications between the initial and final data releases (going from 250 to 202).

2021: 202

2018: 269

2015: 248

2010: 182

2005: 144

IPEDS counts these institutions as four-year universities, but the Carnegie classification (basic codes 14 and 23) is a better way to flag them as two-year colleges.

Going forward, Carnegie classifications will continue to be updated every three years in order to keep up with a rapidly-changing higher education environment. It remains to be seen who will host the classifications following a falling-out with Albion College, and I’m very much intrigued by the high number of reclassifications this time around. It’s never dull in higher ed data land!


How Colleges’ Carnegie Classifications Have Changed Over Time

Right as the entire higher education community was beginning to check out for the holiday season last month, Indiana University’s Center on Postsecondary Research released the 2018 Carnegie classifications. While there are many different types of classifications based on different institutional characteristics, the basic classification (based on size, degrees awarded, and research intensity) always garners the most attention from the higher education community. In this post, I look at some of the biggest changes between the 2015 and 2018 classifications and how the number of colleges in key categories has changed over time. (The full dataset can be downloaded here.)

The biggest change in the 2018 classifications was about how doctoral universities were classified. In previous classifications, a college was considered a doctoral university if it awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees (PhDs and a few other types of professional doctorates such as EdDs). The 2018 revisions counted a college as being a doctoral university if there were at least 30 professional practice doctorates (JDs, MDs, and other related fields such as in health sciences). This resulted in accelerating the increase in the number of doctoral universities that has existed since 2000:

2018: 423

2015: 334

2010: 295

2005: 279

2000: 258

This reclassification is important to universities because college rankings systems often classify institutions based on their Carnegie classification. U.S. News and Washington Monthly (the latter of which I compile) both base the national university category on the Carnegie doctoral university classification. The desire to be in the national university category (instead of regional or master’s university categories that get less public attention) has contributed to some universities developing doctoral programs (as Villanova did prior to the 2015 reclassification).

The revision of the lowest two levels of doctoral universities (which I will call R2 and R3 for shorthand, matching common language) did quite a bit to scramble the number of colleges in each category, with a number of R3 colleges moving into R2 status. Here is the breakdown among the three doctoral university groups since 2005 (the first year of three categories):

Year R1 R2 R3
2018 130 132 161
2015 115 107 112
2010 108 98 89
2005 96 102 81

Changing categories within the doctoral university group is important for benchmarking purposes. As I told Inside Higher Ed back in December, my university’s moving within the Carnegie doctoral category (from R3 to R2) affects its peer group. All of the sudden, tenure and pay comparisons will be based on a different—and somewhat more research-focused—group of institutions.

There has also been an increase in the number of two-year colleges offering at least some bachelor’s degrees, driven by the growth of community college baccalaureate efforts in states such as Florida and a diversifying for-profit sector. Here is the trend in the number of baccalaureate/associate colleges since 2005:

2018: 269

2015: 248

2010: 182

2005: 144

Going forward, Carnegie classifications will continue to be updated every three years in order to keep up with a rapidly-changing higher education environment. Colleges will certainly be paying attention to future updates that could affect their reputation and peer groups.