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In new sorting of colleges, Dartmouth falls out of an exclusive group

Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

Dartmouth’s elite standing in higher education is secure. Founded in 1769, the Ivy League college in New Hampshire is esteemed worldwide for teaching and research. But this week it fell out of a college club many want to enter: A group of roughly 100 research-focused schools that insiders call “R1.”

Among the 15 schools that climbed into the R1 group were West Virginia, Northeastern and George Mason universities.

So what is R1 and why does it matter? This label — denoting schools with “highest research activity” — is part of a crucial sorting exercise that occurs once every five years, called the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

To many insiders, R1 is considered “sort of the pinnacle of higher education — a shorthand for institutions to identify themselves,” said Kevin Kinser, an associate professor of educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York at Albany. He is on the advisory board of the Carnegie initiative. (Albany, by the way, is an R1.)

But Kinser said the label should not be viewed as a ranking or rating, but merely a description based on data. For Dartmouth or any other school to fall out of the R1 category “shouldn’t be considered some deficiency in the institution,” he said.

Little known to the average consumer, Carnegie listings strongly shape how government officials, independent analysts and academic groups perceive more than 4,600 post-secondary institutions in the United States. The first version of these listings were published in 1973 under the oversight of famed academic leader Clark Kerr, who joined the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education after serving as president of the University of California. (UC has eight R1 campuses.)

The 2015 version, published Monday, was produced through a program based at Indiana University, under the direction of educational leadership and policy studies professor Victor M.H. Borden.

These listings determine how U.S. News and World Report groups colleges and universities for its annual rankings. For example, Carnegie classifies as doctoral universities those that award at least 20 doctorates for research or scholarship in an academic year, not counting law or medical degrees. U.S. News, in turn, relies on this classification to define which schools should be called “national universities.”

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Carnegie further sorts doctoral universities into those with “moderate” (R3), “higher” (R2) and “highest” (R1) levels of research activity.

This year, there are 335 doctoral universities.

  • The 113 R3s span Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., to Wright State, in Dayton, Ohio.
  • The 107 R2s span American University in Washington, D.C. to Yeshiva University in New York. They include Dartmouth as well as the College of William and Mary.
  • The 115 R1s range from Arizona State to Yale. They include institutions known as global research powerhouses, such as Johns Hopkins, Duke and the University of Michigan.

To sort doctoral schools into these categories, the Carnegie analysts examined data from 2013-2014 on research and development spending, research staff and doctoral conferrals.

Dartmouth was classified as an R1 school in 2005 and 2010, but in previous versions of the Carnegie listings it was not. The college, with 6,300 students, has the smallest enrollment in the Ivy League. That influences its statistical profile.

“We don’t know what new algorithm they are using to classify institutions, so we can’t replicate the data,” Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence wrote in an email. “Although I don’t want to speculate on this particular classification, our scale, which is so often a strength, does not always help us in rankings like these. Our research expenses have been consistent, so I doubt it is a result of the funding side. Our faculty excellence and competitiveness are certainly on par with our peers.”

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Seven other schools that had been R1 in 2010 are now called R2: Mississippi State, Montana State, North Dakota State, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.), Rockefeller University (N.Y.), the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Yeshiva.

Fifteen schools celebrated moving up to R1, including Northeastern.

“This is an affirmation of our strategy,” said Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun. He said the private university in Boston has invested heavily in faculty scholarship in health, security and sustainability. “We were happily surprised when we were told that we moved to R1.”

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West Virginia has focused on scholarship in areas such as digital humanities, physics, astronomy and energy, said university President E. Gordon Gee. “If you’re in the group of 115, you’re clearly a significant player on the national research stage,” Gee said. “It helps recruit faculty. It helps retain faculty. It helps us to increase the quality of the student body.”

In a highly competitive market, universities seize on anything to stand out. An R1 label can help burnish a school’s reputation. “Does it attract as many people as a good football team? I hope so.” Gee said. “We want to have both. We want to succeed on and off the field.”

The others moving up from R2 to R1 were:

  • Boston College
  • Clemson (S.C.)
  • Florida International
  • George Mason (Va.)
  • Kansas State
  • Syracuse (N.Y.)
  • Temple (Penn.)
  • Texas Tech
  • University of Texas at Arlington
  • University of Texas at Dallas
  • University of Mississippi
  • University of North Texas
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

These were not the only shifts that drew notice. More than 30 schools moved into the ranks of doctoral universities. That will enable them to be placed on the U.S. News list of national universities. Previously Carnegie called them “master’s universities,” and U.S. News called them regional institutions.

For instance, Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia, is now a doctoral R3. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. said he was pleased. “Liberty’s academic leadership has steadily increased doctoral level programs as Liberty has become more of a national research-based institution of higher learning in recent years,” Falwell said.

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Villanova University, a Catholic school in Philadelphia, also made the leap. It was a deliberate move.

Villanova has pushed hard in recent years to expand its doctoral programs to reach the Carnegie threshold of 20 PhDs per year. In 2013-2014, it just hit the mark, awarding seven doctorates in nursing education, seven in engineering and six in philosophy. Starting next September, Villanova will compete in the same ranking with Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College.

Villanova Provost Patrick Maggitti said he personally met the Carnegie classifiers and U.S. News rankers to ensure that the school will henceforth be known as a “national university.”

“We’re elated,” Maggitti said. “This is the dawn of a new age at Villanova.”