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U.S. institutions are classified according to the highest level degree that they are authorized to award, the range of subjects that they offer, and the extent to which they engage in research activities. Some classification schemes also attempt to distinguish institutions according to admissions selectivity, but this method suffers from many of the same technical problems as do ranking lists.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is the most widely used classification in U.S. postsecondary education and covers all types of institutions except nondegree vocational and technical schools.
There are some important facts to keep in mind about the Carnegie and other classification schemes.
- Classifications are not quality ranking lists, but rather are institutional typologies.
- The classification order is by highest degree awarded, but this does not mean that research universities that award the doctorate are superior in status, or higher in quality, than institutions awarding lower degrees. U.S. education is not organized that way.
- Classification is not official or legally binding. It is merely a useful tool to assist educators in identifying an institution's general purpose and some associated characteristics, such as highest degree awarded.
The 10 institutional types identified in the Carnegie Classification may be collapsed into 6 broad categories plus one additional category not in the original classification. These are:
Large Research Universities, including institutions that concentrate on research activities in most or all of their faculties, offer advanced degrees in a wide variety of fields of study, and realize a large portion of their income from sponsored research;
Smaller Doctorate-Granting Universities, including institutions that offer study in a wide variety of fields but award the doctorate, and conduct advanced research, in a relatively small number of fields;
Comprehensive Institutions, including those that award degrees up to and including master's and first-professional degrees, but that do not award the research doctorate or give a high priority to advanced research;
Baccalaureate Institutions, including institutions that offer instruction only at the undergraduate level and award the bachelor's degree, but that prepare students for higher degree studies;
Associate Degree Institutions, including community and junior colleges that award certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees but that do not award the bachelor's or higher degrees (although they prepare students for transfer to bachelor's degree programs);
Specialized Institutions, including institutions that only offer degrees programs in one or a few related fields of study, or that prepare students for specific professional occupations or serve only students from specific occupations or social groups; and
Vocational/Technical Institutions, including institutions offering short nondegree programs (less than 2 years) in occupational fields.
Depending upon the nature and content of studies, and the student's performance, it may be possible for any of the institutions classified above to accept credit from any of the others. Institutional admissions personnel and faculty make that decision in each individual case.
Since each American degree level prepares students for the next, U.S. educators do not assign a quality hierarchy to institutions awarding different degrees. Each level is both important in its own right and in relation to other degree levels.