Carnegie Classifications, College Tiers, and What They Mean

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, or as it is more commonly known, the Carnegie Classification, is a framework for categorizing all accredited, degree-granting institutions in the United States.

Carnegie Classifications, College Tiers, and What They Mean

As you search for the right college or university, be sure that you understand the meaning of commonly used classifications such as Tier 1 Universities, R1 Universities, and Top Tier Universities. Commonly referred to as the Carnegie Classifications, these classifications are an indication of both prestige and commitment to research among colleges and universities. But what do these classifications mean, and what do they mean for you? What impact will these classifications have on your search for the right school? Read on to find out how the Carnegie Classifications can help you zero in on the right school.

What does Carnegie Classification mean?

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, or as it is more commonly known, the Carnegie Classification, is a framework for categorizing all accredited, degree-granting institutions in the United States. Originally formulated in 1970 by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and administered through the University of Indiana’s Center for Postsecondary Research since 2014, the Carnegie Classification is “the leading framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education.” (cite:

Every three years, the Foundation classifies every institution listed in the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The institutions are first classified by type:

  • doctoral universities (R)
  • master’s degree colleges and universities (M)
  • baccalaureate colleges
  • baccalaureate/associate colleges
  • associate’s colleges
  • special focus institutions;
  • and tribal colleges

These categories are fairly straightforward indicators based on the level of degree offered. Carnegie subsequently ranks these schools on separate tiers. Tiers are determined based on a quantitative formula that, for doctoral programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus research dollars spent, and for master’s programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus the size of the student body.

See below for a chart listing all of the Carnegie Classifications, as well as their defining criteria.

Carnegie ClassificationDescriptionTierResearch Classification
Doctoral UniversitiesInstitutions that award at least 20 research
or practice doctorates per year
R1Very High Research Activity
Doctoral UniversitiesR2High Research Activity
Doctoral/Professional UniversitiesR3 or
Moderate Research Activity
Master’s Colleges and Universities:
Larger Programs
Institutions that award at least 50 master’s
degrees per year

Master’s Colleges and Universities:
Medium Programs
Master’s Colleges and Universities:
Smaller Programs
Baccalaureate Colleges – Arts & SciencesDegree-granting institutions with bachelor’s degrees accounting
for at least 10% of degrees conferred
Baccalaureate Colleges – Diverse Fields
Baccalaureate/Associate’s Colleges –
Associates Dominant
Baccalaureate/Associate’s Colleges –
Mixed Baccalaureate/Associate’s
Associate’s Colleges:
High Transfer – High Traditional
Institutions that award associate’s degrees as their highest degree
Associate’s Colleges:
High Transfer - Mixed Traditional/Nontraditional
Associate’s Colleges:
High Transfer - High Nontraditional
Associate’s Colleges:
Mixed Transfer/Career – High Traditional
Associate’s Colleges:
Mixed Transfer/Career -
Mixed Traditional/Nontraditional
Associate’s Colleges:
Mixed Transfer/Career - High Nontraditional
Associate’s Colleges:
High Career – High Traditional
Associate’s Colleges:
High Career - Mixed Traditional/Nontraditional
Associate’s Colleges:
High Career - High Nontraditiona
Special Focus Two-Year: Health ProfessionsTwo-year institutions with 80% of all undergraduate
and graduate degrees related to a special focus
Special Focus Two-Year: Technical Professions
Special Focus Two-Year: Arts and Design
Special Focus Two-Year: Other Fields
Special Focus Four-Year: Faith-Related InstitutionsFour-year institutions with 80% of all undergraduate
and graduate degrees related to a special focus
Special Focus Four-Year: Medical Schools and Centers
Special Focus Four-Year: Other Health Professions Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Engineering Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Other Technology-Related Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Business and Management Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Arts, Music, and Design Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Law Schools
Special Focus Four-Year: Other Special Focus Institutions
Tribal Colleges and UniversitiesInstitutions belonging to the American Indian
Higher Education Consortium
Not classifiedAll other institutions

What are college tier rankings based on?

Research institutions are ranked based on three indicators:

  • the number of research or practice doctorates awarded;
  • the amount of money spent on research; and
  • the number of research faculty.

This drives a formula for quantitative categorization that tells us how much money is raised and spent on research versus how many students and faculty the institution has.

What do these tiers mean to universities?

The Carnegie Classifications are very important to institutions, especially graduate schools with a focus on research. Colleges and universities care deeply about how they rank and make deliberate choices to improve and/or maintain their ranking. There is a lot of prestige that comes with a high ranking. For many colleges and universities, the Carnegie Classifications can contribute to reputation and standing in the academic community, and may figure prominently into the ability of schools to attract top students and faculty.

For instance, if Carnegie classifies a college or university as an R1 (or top-tier research institution), it is highly likely that this same institution will enjoy a high ranking from a noted college ranker such as U.S. News & World Report. In fact, most prominent college ranking services rely to some extent on the tiers dictated by the Carnegie Classification system.

Though unofficial, these tier-based labels are tied largely to each school’s investment in both research and faculty, and how favorably these investments match the size of a student body. These factors may correlate directly to an institution’s ability to attract top talent and generous endowments, and consequently, their capacity to leverage academic influence across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

What do Carnegie Classifications mean for students?

The Carnegie Classification won’t necessarily tell students which schools are “best,“, and it really isn’t meant to. The Carnegie Classification is simply a system for categorization, intended to sort schools into categories by degree type and emphasis on research. In fact, while college ranking services will usually acknowledge the Carnegie Classifications, these tiers will be incorporated into a larger set of indicators before a service like U.S. News & World Report can arrive at a qualitative ranking.

Carnegie Classifications aren’t explicitly tied to the quality of education or the student experience. The Carnegie Classifications are not informed by student-focused metrics such as graduation rates, extracurriculars, after-graduation employment, student services, or campus facilities. In this regard, the Carnegie Classifications aren’t meant as a way to discern the overall quality of an institution.

Instead, the classifications are designed to group colleges and universities based on their research activities. For students and prospective students, Carnegie’s tiers offer basic groupings within which schools are comparable in terms of their size, research emphasis, and their student-to-faculty ratio.

This means that the Carnegie Classification may be one helpful starting point for students in search of the right school. It may be an especially good way to determine if your graduate school is more focused on research or teaching. Your preference for one experience or the other will play a major role in your grad school destination. The Carnegie Classification can help point you in the right direction.

From there, you must take into account the indicators that are most important from you, whether they relate to student experience, faculty influence, affordability, accessibility, geographical location, or the countless other factors that will enter into this important decision.

For help weighing these factors, find out what you should look for in a graduate school.

Or read on to learn more about the differences between teaching and research universities.