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Colleges that spend at least $50 million in research and development and award 70 or more research doctorate degrees will be able to attain the coveted R1 status under forthcoming changes to the Carnegie Classifications system that debuted Wednesday. 

The new metrics simplify a complex formula for determining R1, which stands for Research 1, or the very highest levels of research activity in the Carnegie Classifications.

The American Council on Education, higher ed’s top lobby, said it will incorporate the new methodology for the classifications’ 2025 release. ACE last year assumed control of the Carnegie model, which for decades has grouped together colleges by level of research activity and educational purpose. 

The changes are part of ACE’s overhaul of the system.  ACE officials have said they want the Carnegie framework to capture a wider breadth of colleges’ work and missions. Grouping colleges by merely the highest level of academic degrees they offer — the primary metric in the current system — is too shallow of a measurement, ACE has said.

To that end, the organization will also unveil “multidimensional labels” for colleges that it will determine over the next several months. These will go beyond the highest degree colleges award and could focus on their size, location or student demographics. 

The shifts stand to disrupt what has long served as de facto college rankings, as R1 institutions receive the most federal research dollars and often tout their classification as a mark of renown to attract applicants and donors.

What changes are coming to designations?

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education first published in 1973 and has seen periodic updates, the last being in 2021. 

However, the system’s basic classifications — which sort colleges from those conferring associate degrees through those awarding doctorates — have essentially remained static since their introduction decades ago

The most prominent designations in this system are R1, as well as R2, which denotes high levels of research activity at a doctoral institution. Colleges often strive for R1 or R2 because of the associated prestige. Some institutions have even faced accusations of compromising their missions, and in turn the quality of their undergraduate education, in pursuit of R1.

Only 146 institutions in the U.S. have R1 status.

With ACE’s changes, an institution will be able to prove it meets the new R1 threshold by using either data on a three-year rolling average or from the most recent year, whichever is higher. The metrics for achieving R2 will be unchanged — colleges must award at least 20 doctoral research degrees and spend $5 million on research.

The group said it’s redoing the formula for determining R1 in part because it caps the number of institutions that can reach that level. The existing R1 methodology also only rewards a certain type of college, one with a comprehensive research portfolio that incorporates STEM fields, humanities and social sciences, ACE said.

“As a result, many institutions that conduct and contribute significant amounts of research in a single area or within a narrower profile are not included in the R1 category,” ACE said in a document released Wednesday.

ACE expects a couple dozen institutions will move into the R1 category, said Mushtaq Gunja, a senior vice president and executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems. And it anticipates “a few” R1 institutions will drop into R2, he said.

Gunja said colleges that might fall to R2 have expressed gratitude to ACE that the methodology for R1 will be more straightforward. Institutions on the precipice of slipping into R2 have lived with a certain degree of fear they’ll be downgraded, he said. The new metrics introduce more certainty into the process, he said.

“Conversations have been very positive,” Gunja said.

ACE representatives said Tuesday they set out to capture a more complete view of colleges and their missions, not to diversify the types of institutions that will make it into R1.

However, that will likely happen. Gunja anticipates a historically Black college or university will reach R1 for the first time ever. 

Some HBCUs have been vying for the status for years, while raking in major research dollars. North Carolina A&T State University locked down more than $147 million in research money in fiscal 2023, $50 million more than the previous year.

And last year, Howard University, a private HBCU in Washington, D.C., announced it hit $122 million in annual research grants and contracts.

ACE also wants to add a new “research colleges and universities” designation.These will be institutions without an R1 or R2 tag that spend more than $2.5 million on research expenditures.

This new classification means to recognize institutions that regularly engage in research but are not doctoral colleges, such as standalone medical schools, said Sara Gast, ACE’s deputy executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems.

This could benefit colleges in a few ways, ACE officials said. For one, federal grantmakers seeking to diversify the types of institutions they give money to might notice this designation, according to Gunja.

“This is the first step in providing third parties a new way to think about the higher ed world,” Gunja said.

What else will change?

ACE will disclose more about the new multidimensional labels next summer or fall, Gunja and Gast said. ACE is debating how to define some of the thresholds, for instance, if the new methodology looks at the size of an institution, where the cutoff might be. 

The organization said it will also introduce a metric that scrutinizes how colleges help advance students’ social and economic positions.

While ACE envisions institutions jockeying with similar fervor to move up the social and economic mobility metric as they do for R1, some college leaders have been skeptical. College presidents expressed at the group’s annual meeting earlier this year that the federal government would likely still prioritize funding for institutions with the highest research designations.

ACE plans to share more about the social mobility metric in the spring, Gunja said. He said the organization has met with about half a dozen federal agencies that fund college grants, including the National Institutes of Health. He said they’re interested in learning more “about the types of institutions they’re funding.”

Gunja said he doesn’t see R1 and the social mobility metrics to be “oppositional.”

“Together, they provide a 360-degree view of an institution that will be helpful,” he said.

ACE took hold of the system in March 2022 after a plan to move it to Albion College, a private liberal arts institution in Michigan, fell through following a scandal with its then-president. 

While ACE counts over 1,700 members of varying institution types — two-year, four-year, public and private — the Carnegie Classifications encompass an even greater contingent of colleges. Roughly 4,000 institutions were in the most recent classifications release.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching owns the classifications. The foundation and ACE, when announcing the move to the latter, said they would mull altering the system to account for social, racial and economic concerns.

Before arriving at ACE, the classifications had lived at Indiana University since 2014.

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