The American Council on Education recently announced its effort to create a social and economic mobility classification for higher education institutions that will measure student access and outcomes – and one of the voices at the table belongs to a University of Texas at El Paso researcher.

Anne-Marie Nuñez, executive director of UTEP’s Diana Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success, is part of a technical review panel that is investigating the best ways for colleges to reflect what they do and how to recognize the variety of student pathways to success, especially among minority and low-income students.

This is part of an effort to modernize the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, a system started in 1973 that puts the country’s almost 4,000 colleges and universities into categories and subcategories based on factors to include mission, focus and public purpose. The panel’s goal is to share the student-focused metrics in spring 2024 to give institutional leaders around the country time to review and offer input before the final assessments are presented the following year.

An expert in the field of social mobility and Hispanic-serving institutions, Nuñez said the 20-member team has met regularly since its launch in fall 2022. The group continues to review and analyze different variables such as how an institution’s enrollment should reflect a state’s population and post-graduation data to include earning potential.

One of the main challenges the panel faces is that each variable generates questions about how to account for differences between states and within states. Nuñez said that it is difficult to find comparable data metrics across all post-secondary institutions in terms of student experiences, faculty, teaching and learning, but she is glad to be part of the discussion.

“These conversations were not taking place 10 years ago,” said Nuñez, who uses her academic expertise to raise concerns about the nuances and complexities of these different measures.

UTEP Provost John Wiebe said that it was vital for institutions like UTEP to be part of the social and economic mobility classification, or SEMC, conversation. He was pleased that Nuñez could share her data-based perspective and insights from her role at the Natalicio Institute, a national research center that seeks to influence higher education.

John Wiebe, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso.

John Wiebe, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Other institutions, in many cases, are only starting to grapple with things that UTEP has worked out over the years and has dealt with,” Wiebe said.

In September, the Wall Street Journal named UTEP the state’s top institution for social mobility, and the 20th overall in the country. Social mobility is the accessibility of a family with modest means to increased economic status. The publication based its rankings on access to low-income students, cost of attendance, graduation rates, and the salaries of its graduates.

One of the university’s financial assistance programs is the Paydirt Promise, where students from families with incomes of $75,000 or less may not have to pay tuition and mandatory fees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, El Paso’s median household income in 2021 was $51,325. A September 2019 story in MarketWatch stated that UTEP was among the country’s Top 10 colleges for upward mobility. It helped students from the bottom 20% (families with income below $25,000) reach the top 20% (starting at $110,000).  

Nuñez said the SEMC is a signal from Carnegie to higher education leaders to think more about the merits behind social and economic mobility, which is significant these days when the public questions the value of college.

“I would say that UTEP is very aligned with the social and economic mobility considerations in the sense that it is trying to serve its local population, and encourage the social and economic mobility of its community,” Nuñez said.

Jacob Fraire, president of the ECMC Foundation

Jacob Fraire, president of the ECMC Foundation, said his organization is thrilled about the potential benefits of the changes and additions to the classification system. The foundation is a funder of this American Council on Education, or ACE, initiative that was announced Nov. 1.

The modification that gained the most attention initially was the clarification of criteria for its research tiers to include the R1, “doctoral universities – very high research activity,” and R2, “high research activity.” ACE lowered the number of metrics from 10 to two: the amount of research expenditures spent, and the number of doctoral degrees issued annually.

As of 2025, institutions can earn the R1 designation if they award a minimum of 70 doctoral degrees and spend at least $50 million for research. UTEP has been an R1 institution since December 2018. The university announced in March that it had more than $130.5 million in annual research expenditures, and awarded 143 doctoral degrees during the 2022-23 academic year.

These particular designations carry perceptions of prestige because the research leads to additional grants and research, and attracts research faculty, graduate students and industry partners.

Wiebe, UTEP’s provost, said that the university’s faculty and staff have worked hard to earn its R1 designation, which places it among the top 5% of the nation’s research institutions. That classification also benefits students and the region. 

“Regardless of national rankings or classifications, we will continue to build our research enterprise strategically in areas of current and emerging strength,” Wiebe said.

 While the research component is important, Fraire said he also was excited about the new focus on students, graduation rates and the professional success of alumni. If based on the appropriate variables, Fraire said universities will be able to set comparable benchmarks for research and the accomplishments of their graduates in the workforce and as citizens.

“It is a big lift to be clear,” said Fraire, who previously served as the Natalicio Institute’s director of policy and strategy.

Mushtaq Gunja, executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems and senior vice president at the American Council on Education

The project leader is Mushtaq Gunja, executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems and senior vice president at ACE, which works with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to manage the college rankings.

Gunja said that the R1 changes will not affect UTEP’s research standing, and he does not expect the university will approach its research agenda differently. However, he believes that campus leaders and officials at other Hispanic-serving institutions will be interested in SEMC.

The ACE official said that all colleges and universities will be part of this new classification, but that they will be grouped based on metrics developed by the panel. The follow-up steps will be to learn and address the social and economic mobility challenges those institutions face and help them to become the best versions of themselves.

Gunja said that he has met with many leaders of Hispanic-serving institutions that believe their campuses are on top of student mobility issues. He wants to see the data that includes adjustments for things like student types and location.

“We’ll have to see how this all plays out,” Gunja said. “It’ll be fun.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.