Is Climbing the Research Rankings Worth the Price?

The Chronicle:

While you may gain prestige, grant money, and talented researchers, be prepared for high costs and steep competition – and make sure your goals align with your values.


Saint Louis University has a lot going for it: a billion-dollar endowment, more than a dozen academic programs ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News & World Report, and a place among just seven Roman Catholic colleges listed in the Carnegie Classification’s second-highest tier of research institutions. (That tier, called Research 2, designates “Doctoral Universities: Higher Research Activity.”)

But the university’s leaders have even loftier goals: They want to double the amount of grants, private contracts, and donations awarded for faculty research — to $100 million — in just five years. They also hope to join the exclusive group of universities classified by Carnegie as R-1, or Research 1, which would put them in the company of institutions like Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The criteria for reaching that classification include several measures of research spending, staff levels, and the number of doctorates an institution awards. …

[T]he path to the pinnacle of academic research is narrow and crowded. In 2015, the last year Carnegie updated its classifications, just 115 institutions held R-1 status, seven more than in 2010. About 150 universities spend more than $100-million a year on research. Among those striving to raise their research profiles are the Universities of Memphis, Montana, and Nevada at Reno. All three share St. Louis’s R-2 classification.

To reach the top often requires significant costs to build laboratory space, recruit star faculty researchers, and pay graduate-student stipends. And the competition for both faculty members and coveted federal research grants is growing, while federal spending for those awards is stagnant. Meanwhile, critics wonder whether going for more research money and a higher Carnegie classification really has more to do with elevating institutional image, and comes at the expense of academic quality — particularly for undergraduates.

“It’s a huge investment on the part of the institution,” says George D. Kuh, founding director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Based at Indiana University at Bloomington, the institute studies ways to improve undergraduate education. “There are so many other universities around that have already captured the prestige.”