4 initial steps for climbing the Carnegie Classification ranks

By Marye Colleen Larme and Brooke Thayer

Fall is rankings and awards season in higher education. In that spirit, we wanted to share with you the answer the Ask EAB team provides for a common question: How can institutions climb the Carnegie Classification ranks?

Institutions cite numerous benefits associated with obtaining a higher Carnegie research designation. These include an enhanced institutional profile within their state and nationally, potentially greater state investment downstream, and the ability to attract and retain better faculty, students, donors, and partners.

Here are the four initial steps we recommend to chief research officers (CROs) whose institutions are seeking to climb the Carnegie Classification ranks. For those of you already focused on rising in the ranks, steps three and four include specific strategies and recommendations for future consideration.

1. Familiarize yourself with the Carnegie rankings methodology and your institution’s current classification.

In order to be classified as Doctoral Universities within the Carnegie system, institutions must award a minimum of twenty research or scholarship degrees each year. Within the Doctoral Universities classification, institutions are then separated into three categories based on research activity metrics.

  • R1: Doctoral Universities – Highest research activity
  • R2: Doctoral Universities – Higher research activity
  • R3: Doctoral Universities – Moderate research activity

If your institution is currently classified as a Master’s college or university, determine how many more doctoral degree programs are needed to meet the minimum requirements to be classified as a Doctoral University.

2. Use the Carnegie classification data to determine where your institution currently stands compared to institutions at higher designations by identifying the particular research activity metrics where your institution is lagging behind.

The Carnegie system considers the following research activity metrics when determining classifications:

  • Research and development (R&D) expenditures in science and engineering (S&E)
  • Research expenditures in non-S&E fields
  • Number of S&E dedicated research staff (postdoctoral appointees and other non-faculty research staff with doctorates)
  • Number of Doctoral degree conferrals in humanities fields, in social science fields, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and other fields (e.g., business, education, public policy, social work)

3. Invest in lagging areas by implementing strategies to boost research activity metrics.

See below for a variety of potential strategies for boosting each of the research activity metrics that the Carnegie system considers.

R&D expenditures in S&E

To grow R&D expenditures in S&E fields, CROs can start by compiling their existing institutional strengths, regional advantages, and state priorities to identify comparative advantages and research areas they are uniquely positioned to study. Based on this evaluation, CROs could then flag three or four multidisciplinary research areas (e.g., brain science, alternative energy technologies, big data) for strategic investment.

Many institutions have successfully initiated large-scale research projects built around centers or institutes and involving investigators from across the university, other universities, and from industry. These often entail embracing “grand challenge” initiatives. By attracting large-scale grants from federal funders, industry, and foundations, these initiatives can help increase research expenditures.

Learn six imperatives for embarking on grand challenges

R&D expenditures in non-S&E fields

Non-S&E fields tend to have fewer opportunities for large-scale funding. To grow R&D expenditures in these disciplines, CROs and their institutions should support non-S&E projects and create opportunities for non-S&E researchers to engage in larger research endeavors.

Institutions can offer internal grants for non-S&E proposal writing and research, particularly within the humanities. Many universities have also had success launching interdisciplinary research initiatives and using cluster hiring to bring faculty together from a variety of S&E and non-S&E disciplines in order to address multifaceted problems.

Learn more about connecting new PIs with funding opportunities

Number of S&E dedicated research staff

Increasing both overall research expenditures and the number of dedicated S&E research staff depend in part on recruiting faculty who have a track record of consistent (and recent) grant achievements. A common strategy for improving recruitment efforts is increasing start-up packages and creating research incentives, including distributing a percentage of indirect cost recovery back to departments or individual PIs.

Before hiring additional dedicated research staff, CROs should do a better job of accurately counting the FTEs they already have in their units. If they opt to hire more staff, they should then target candidates with a strong history of industry success. Finally, some universities have hired additional instructors to teach classes so that faculty can focus their efforts on research.

Number of doctoral degree conferrals in broad disciplinary fields

To increase doctoral degree conferrals, institutions must make sure they have sufficient faculty to teach and mentor graduate students. They also should focus on improving the quality of their doctoral degrees. Program rankings by U.S. News and World Report or the National Research Council provide institutions with one measure of quality. Additionally, institutions should examine and seek to improve graduate student recruitment, admissions yield, time to degree, and job placement outcomes.

4. Start developing a longer-term strategy for investment and ongoing growth.

Climbing the Carnegie ranks is complicated by the fact that Carnegie research designations are relative measures. This means that the research activity at Doctoral Universities is calculated relative to other Doctoral Universities. As a result, the designations depend on institutions continuing to grow their research enterprise faster than other institutions. Achieving a higher designation is therefore simply a first-step in the perpetual process of investment and growth.

It is also important to note that the closer a university gets to the top of the rankings, the harder it is for the institution to continue climbing. Institutions that have risen rapidly are unlikely to continue their swift ascent since they will be competing in a new peer group. CROs must therefore be realistic when setting goals and timelines for climbing the ranks.

Upon achieving a higher designation, CROs should then identify the necessary internal changes for fostering a culture of research on campus and maintaining growth momentum.

Learn how to foster a culture of research at your institution

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