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Pursuit of R-2 status can expand opportunity (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

As universities “ascend” from one Carnegie Foundation classification to another, alarm bells often go off—particularly among those who study higher education. There is that conjectural concern that as universities become more research-oriented, or move “up” in Carnegie classification, seeking R-2 (high research activity) or R-1 (very high research activity) status, they become less focused on students, more exclusive and less responsive to their communities’ needs.

But institutions of higher learning are recreating what it means to be a publicly engaged research institution. And with the shifting demographics of student populations, we owe it to society to provide research opportunities to a student population that reflects our state’s growing diversity—and to do so cost-effectively.

Towson University recently announced the goal of increasing research activity and obtaining R-2 Carnegie status by 2027 (currently we are classified as M-1: master’s colleges and universities—larger programs). Broadly speaking, higher education institutions are classified as R-2 if they graduate about 20 doctoral students each year and spend about $5 million a year on research activities. In actuality, Towson is three-quarters of the way there, with doctoral programs and research programs likely to approach these benchmarks by natural evolution of the work already occurring. Recently, TU updated its mission statement to support this effort through new doctoral programming, including three Ph.D. programs we plan to launch, pending requisite approvals, in autism studies, business analytics and sustainability. TU is committed to funding $11 million over the next three fiscal years to support the agenda.

However, there is more to the story.

Towson is a comprehensive regional public university serving the greater Baltimore region, certified by Carnegie for being a community-engaged institution. Towson is nationally recognized for its diversity and inclusion, contributions to social mobility, value and return on investment. Unlike most four-year higher education institutions, there is no equity gap for Black students in six-year graduation rates, with Black students graduating at a slightly higher rate than white students (74 percent versus 73 percent).

Given that Towson has distinguished itself as a student-centered, inclusive university, why have we, and other public institutions like us, identified R-2—and the new graduate education and research that comes with it—as a goal? What would it objectively add to our mission? Are we trying to mimic the flagship? Are we going to lose what makes Towson so distinct, especially as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, in the process of adding new research and graduate programs to our portfolio?

To answer these questions, we turned to data, peer institutions and history.

Towson, like many institutions, identifies a set of institutional peers. Given our recent stated goal, all 20 TU peers are R-2 public institutions, though many only recently became R-2s: of those 20, only seven were classified as R-2 in 2015, a figure that rose to 12 in the 2018 classification and to 20 in the 2021 classification. By examining federal IPEDS data on these peers and other similar–but–R-2 institutions, and talking to academic leaders and scholars who study regional colleges and universities, we found R-2 public institutions have not become less diverse or accessible as they make the transition. Rather, they evolve in distinct ways to provide more opportunities for the students, faculty and staff they have traditionally served well.

Given TU’s commitment to fostering an inclusive campus, we looked first at diversity, equity and inclusion. Using IPEDS data, we quickly saw that three-fourths of the 20 institutional peers served a greater proportion of Pell Grant recipients now than they did six years before. Most institutions had increases in the overall percentage of students they admitted and showed an increase in Black and Hispanic students served during the period in which they were growing from master’s to R-2 colleges and universities.

This small sample has been set in a larger context. Research on 245 public master’s-granting regional colleges and universities showed that from 2006 to 2016, regional colleges and universities primarily (a) increased percentages of Pell Grant recipients, (b) increased their proportion of students of color and (c) saw no noticeable change in admissions selectivity, with most increasing their acceptance rates and decreasing their mean admission test scores. Regional public colleges and universities that are categorized as both master’s and R-2 institutions are walking and chewing gum at the same time—adding graduate programs and new research programs with those they have traditionally served.

However, access is not only about who gets into an institution but what students find when they get there. The places where interdisciplinary, problem-solving research happens, where patents are created and business start-ups initiated, have been the most challenging places for undergraduate students to gain access within state systems of higher education. Sometimes that access is limited by a flagship’s selective admission rate, sometimes by high tuition and sometimes by distance from a student’s home and work.

A critical reason that institutions like Towson are exploring additional graduate programs and funded research opportunities is to better serve the diverse community of undergraduate students who call their institution home. This includes working professionals who want new pathways to graduate school and opportunities to do undergraduate research with faculty close to home, not far away. Undergraduate learning experiences are at the center of R-2 institution research projects, with research studies providing students much-needed paid summer jobs and employment opportunities and involving many community partnerships. We heard this repeatedly from R-2 peer leaders: undergraduate students are centered by our R-2 peers, not sidelined—they are the main beneficiaries of more expansive research opportunities.

Rather than creating graduate programs that mimic flagship or land-grant R-1 institutions in their states, most R-2 institutions became so by expanding graduate programs and research where they already have a footprint, in fields highly tied to regional, state and local community problems. We found the addition of particular doctoral programs and partnerships makes these institutions less like one another, and less like the R-1 flagships in their states, and more like “expansive” versions of their distinctive selves. For example, many R-2 institutions have added interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs that clearly respond to where they are located (e.g., marine science in coastal North Carolina; global urban studies in Newark, N.J.).

Eighteen of the 20 TU peers we examined were classified by Carnegie as community engaged. No two institutions had partnerships that looked the same; rather, these were distinctive relationships and projects based on ties between the institutions and local businesses, schools, and municipal governments.

A sidebar to the skeptics. Yes, it is also true that moving to R-2 Carnegie classification has financial and other benefits, as state higher education systems may use these designations to determine faculty workload expectations (e.g., 3-3 versus 3-2 course loads) and salary ranges, and institutions may leverage acquiring R-2 status as a focal point of capital campaigns. There is also discretion afforded to institutions in terms of what is counted as a research doctoral degree and research expenditure and what is not. The pursuit of R-2 status could be perceived as part of an institution’s attempt to improve its reputation and rise in the rankings. Institutions of higher education still strive for higher U.S. News & World Report rankings, and there are important debates within state systems about replication of programs. It is also true that R-2 status could enhance institutional reputation as universities weather declines in the college-going population.

Each of these contexts can be true, and it can also be true that regional public universities have a long and successful track record of evolving to serve the needs of their communities.

The majority of R-2 peers we examined were founded, like TU, as normal schools for teachers between the 1860s and 1920s, with a small group of the newest institutions founded since 1950. Who would expect the campuses of 1870, 1930, 1950 and 2022 would look the same, given the changes in the world and in our student bodies? TU has evolved from a normal school to college to university, from women-only to co-education. Early in its history, TU moved the entire campus from one location to another. Change is the constant for TU and many of the R-2s we examined. Pulling more opportunities for engaged research and graduate education toward our students, faculty and staff is simply one of many recent evolutions.

Towson, like many of the R-2 peer institutions we studied, is advancing toward R-2—for good. Rather than being an either-or choice—teaching students or conducting research—we see rampant “anding.” Universities are charting new pathways: investing in significant research expenditures and serving a substantial percentage of students who received a Pell Grant and continuing our commitment to community engagement as an anchor institution in our region.

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Pursuit of R-2 status can expand opportunity (opinion) | Inside
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