Paulette Granberry Russell is president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education recently announced that they will reexamine the Carnegie Classifications to better reflect the public purpose of higher education by creating a classification that ranks institutions based on economic and social mobility and emphasizing the diversity of higher education institutions.
This is a step forward, particularly for institutions like historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges that have been prioritizing the economic and social mobility of their students for generations. These institutions have been offering up a model for college and university leaders who are encouraged to elevate mobility as a strategic goal.
The new classification and renewed focus on diversity is a crucial course correction. Carnegie Classifications have long served as measures of institutional prestige. HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and other institutions that have focused their missions on serving Black, Indigenous and students of color — and often lack resources and external funding — have long been shut out of the top rankings. Yet they have persistently proven their track record of elevating opportunities for students and for advancing research of importance to our nation’s most marginalized communities.
To achieve the Carnegie Classifications’ R1 or R2 status, the top research designations, colleges and universities must spend at least $5 million on research. Currently, about 150 spend $100 million or more per year.
This is a major barrier for HBCUs, tribal colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions that receive less in total federal grants than predominantly White institutions. This has no bearing, however, on the graduation outcomes for their students, particularly relative to their average economic status prior to enrollment.
Ten HBCUs are designated R2, but zero are R1, a status signifying “very high research activity” and considered a top honor in the classification system. In a circle of reinforcement, these R1 institutions often top other national rankings based on perception and funding.
It is time to judge colleges and universities by how well they serve the educational and social needs of their students and not by the size of their budgets. As the term “inclusive excellence” is written into strategic plans across the country, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion is a strategy for attracting the best talent and serving students. Excellence and inclusion are not antithetical goals.
Prioritizing the work of institutions whose mission has been to center Black, Indigenous and students of color, and that provide social mobility for those students — many of whom are less likely to have generational wealth and would benefit most from the difference in lifetime earnings correlated to receiving a college degree — is overdue. As this is taken into account, institutional excellence will, at long last, be better recognized and rewarded by the Carnegie system.
It is time to judge colleges and universities by how well they serve the educational and social needs of their students and not by the size of their budgets.
As a hiring discrimination lawsuit by Brian Flores against the National Football League shows, policies are only effective if they have broad support and are incentivized by the structures responsible for enacting them. The Rooney Rule, requiring NFL franchises to interview at least one person of color for head coaching jobs, was meant to ensure the pipeline for those jobs was broadened. And, for a time, the diversity of head coaches in the league did increase. However, in the absence of those rules being enforced, penalties were no longer leveraged against team owners who failed to engage the rules in good faith, and the trend reversed.
We have seen an incremental increase in the diversity of college leaders since 2020, and we must continue to further that trend through incentives that institutions take seriously. The existing credibility and infrastructure of the Carnegie Classification system can be an effective tool, but only if we in higher education value the social and economic mobility classifications as much as those based on research (and research expenditures).
We must enact policies meant to ensure equity and mobility in good faith and find more ways to reward institutions that take access and investment in racial justice seriously — and that are graduating students who will succeed. Classifications and rankings will ensure colleges are taking racial equity and social and economic mobility into account. A broad reorienting of analysis of institutional success based on these factors also empowers chief diversity officers on campuses. Boards, presidents and provosts are further encouraged to meaningfully engage with diversity, equity and inclusion work when they can see the results in classification.
This reprioritization of values by ACE and the Carnegie Foundation is an opportunity for higher education to elevate its role as a public good and site of opportunity for all, and to acknowledge the role that the full range of colleges and universities, including HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions, plays in meeting the needs of a diverse cohort of graduates for the next 50 years. For college and university leaders looking to better their outcomes regarding social mobility, they need only look at the time-tested model of these institutions.