Chronicle of Higher Education Special Report, Is Climbing the Research Rankings Worth the Price?:
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.
Is Climbing the Carnegie Research Rankings Worth the Price Tag?:
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."
Douglas K. Rush, president of the Faculty Senate at Saint Louis, raises an even deeper question: whether the focus on expanded research and rankings fits the university’s Jesuit mission. Instead of just looking at the bottom line, he says, the university needs to pursue research dedicated to social justice and improving the lives of the city’s residents. ..
[R]esearch expenditures at Saint Louis have fallen significantly over the past decade. In 2008 the university devoted more than $59 million to research — including the money from federal grants — according to federal data on research expenditures. By 2016 that sum had fallen to $42 million, a decline of more than 28 percent. ...
When the ratings were last updated, in 2015, 15 universities were moved up to the R-1 category, while eight were moved down, according to figures from the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana, where the classification system is now located. ...
Beyond the question of whether Saint Louis, or any other institution, can achieve its research goals is the broader question about whether doing so amounts to the right priority. The region already has a major research institution, Washington University in St. Louis, notes Karen Gross, a higher-education consultant and former president of Southern Vermont College. "Why is one more needed? To improve enrollment? For status? Many students stay relatively close to home, so why saturate one market and leave others vapid?" she said in an email.
A more pressing need for the city, as well as much of the rest of the country, is to improve undergraduate education, especially for minority and low-income students, Gross wrote.
Increasing the amount of research money will very likely make graduate programs more competitive, says Kuh, of Indiana University. And while undergraduate research can be a valuable part of the learning experience, there is no direct relationship between the quality of undergraduate learning and the amount a university spends on research, he says.
"Attracting more research-focused faculty does not mean they will be spending more time with undergrads," Kuh says. "Teaching undergraduates is not a strong sell for researchers."