An early morning look down the Lefton Esplanade on the Kent State University campus. Photo: Kent State University

There’s no shortage of lists about colleges. Biggest party schools. Top “green” campuses. Universities that are the best values or offer the most lucrative majors.

For insiders at higher education institutions, though, one grouping reigns supreme: the Carnegie classification. It sorts the 4,000-plus colleges in the nation into a variety of different categories. And at the top of that pile sits those that receive the designation as an R1 university.

“I can’t think of any university leader, or any university or college professor/researcher, that doesn’t keep track of this list,” said Todd Diacon, president of Kent State University.

Under those classifications, published for the first time in 1973, doctoral-degree-granting universities can earn that R1 status. It’s the highest level awarded in that category and indicates a university has “very high” research activity. Several factors are taken into consideration, including the number of faculty members and how much grant-funded research is conducted.

The classifications were recently updated, and for the first time, Diacon’s Kent State made the cut. It’s now one of 146 colleges nationwide to have this distinction. Leaders at the university believe the new status will help distinguish KSU now and in the future.

The Cleveland region is a crowded market for colleges. There are nearly 30 nonprofit institutions. But Diacon, who arrived at Kent in 2012 as provost and became president in 2019, said he tends to instead talk about Northern Ohio versus Northeast Ohio. He specifically talks about the area north of Columbus, home of Ohio State University.

OSU, Ohio University, the University of Cincinnati and now Kent are the state’s public schools with R1 status. And, to borrow Diacon’s reference point, head up I-71 north and the only other university with the distinction is Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, which is Ohio’s sole R1 private institution.

Diacon’s been at other institutions, he said, where the primary goal was stated and clear: Get to R1 status over the next decade. But he doesn’t remember that being said at Kent.

There were a few big moments, though, that contributed to its rise. One was the 2015 hiring of Paul DiCorleto, who had stints at the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western, as Kent’s vice president for research and sponsored programs. Another came two years later, when a consultant told officials they were already doing relevant work, it just wasn’t coordinated.

“It was not centrally directed in a way that would increase its impact, and even our understanding of what we were doing,” Diacon said.

The university moved to create several separate institutes around already strong research areas. That list now includes a brain health institute, an advanced materials and liquid crystal institute, and a design institute.

The structure has been beneficial, and not just strictly related to bringing in funding opportunities, according to Doug Delahanty, who is now KSU’s interim vice president for research and sponsored programs after DiCorleto retired last year. It helps break down silos.

“Almost any programming that we have on campus is co-sponsored by multiple institutes,” Delahanty said. “Almost anything that we’re envisioning from an investment and payoff strategy has involvement of multiple of these different entities. That kind of brings folks together, building excitement about research.”

He believes this new designation can be leveraged to help bolster the competitiveness of Kent’s research proposals for state and federal funding, adding that reviewers take note when looking at applications.

“If it’s from an R1 institution, there is a level of prestige associated with that, there’s a level of accomplishment,” he said. “There’s an understanding that an infrastructure exists to support an R1 designation.”

Aside from a potential boost to researchers, officials think it’ll help increase the attractiveness of Kent during job searches for professors, as well as drive enrollment for graduate-level courses.

The same level of impact probably won’t be felt when it comes to undergraduate admissions, though. It’s too inside baseball for most. Kent State’s full-time enrollment dropped 4% to about 26,000 students last fall.

President Diacon maintains the university didn’t rearrange any priorities on this journey. Earning R1 status, rising graduation rates and the growing diversification of the student body rank as the university’s three biggest accomplishments of the past decade, Diacon said.

There’s pushback nationally, though, around these classifications. The original intent was to frame similar colleges together to measure their work, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But as Timothy Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation, told the publication, over time “it turned into this race to the top, where the R1 became the designation that even institutions that really weren’t designed to be fundamentally research institutions began to aspire to.”

The foundation announced a partnership with the American Council on Education earlier this month. The groups will collaborate to redefine the classifications into versions that “better reflect the public purpose, mission, focus, and impact of higher education,” according to a release. That will include a new classification looking at social and economic mobility.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.