Higher Ed 101: Mission Critical, Part 2

Higher Ed 101
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Higher Ed 101: Mission Critical, Part 2

In OPtimizing EDucation by Mia Murphy May 18, 2021

The last time I wrote about public university missions, it was to give the reader a sense of university history and founding purposes. As I pointed out in that last post, what universities do now is even today often conditional on what they were originally established to do. Today, I’m writing more about the contemporary missions of the public universities, and importantly, how there are different ways to categorize those missions.

IPEDS expenditures at all institutions

First and foremost, it’s not the case that any public university has a sole mission. Every university is going to conduct a mix of activities. One can roughly identify the relative importance of each of these activities to an institution through federally required expenditure reporting in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). If something is important, it is likely going to have dollars spent on it.

The major federal expenditure categories are as follows: instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services, institutional support, scholarships, auxiliary enterprises, hospital services, and other expenses. All of Michigan’s public universities report expenditures in each of these categories, except for hospital services, which is only a function of the University of Michigan. The four main missions within the expenditure categories are:

  • Instruction and academic support are the heart of a university – the teaching and learning that takes place. This is the first mission of every institution, but not the only one.
  • Research is another self-explanatory category; much of research expenditure is funded through private or federal dollars, meaning that grants from federal agencies, foundations, or corporations are funding research projects and subsidizing faculty and staff salaries. In fact, many faculty members at research-intensive institutions are expected to pay for their own salaries in full with research grants.
    • It’s worth pointing out that research is also entwined with instruction. Graduate education and advanced undergraduate education in STEM fields rely on students learning how to conduct lab and field research as part of their education. There is, of course, research outside of STEM fields, but that is the easiest example to understand.
  • Public service is the category of externally oriented activities that provide beneficial services to people outside of the universities. Things like community services, cooperative extension services (i.e., teaching the latest agriculture best practices to farmers and ranchers), public broadcasting, institutes, and local school and health partnerships are all part of public service.
  • Finally, hospital services are the costs associated with running a medical system. While six Michigan public universities have medical schools, only UM owns and operates a hospital. University hospitals provide local basic health care to residents, but they are also the places where true medical research happens. The work to treat and cure cancers, COVID, heart disease, diabetes, and similar ailments all happens in university research hospitals.

Carnegie Classifications and data-driven missions

Beyond expenditures, universities’ missions can also be described by looking at their degrees produced. This approach is where the Carnegie Classifications come in. This decades-long effort, originally started by the Carnegie Foundation and now managed by Indiana University, has grouped universities primarily based on their academic production and activities. Again, missions and categories are not black and white; the gradation in the Carnegie Classifications reinforces that it’s all a mix.

The relevant classifications for most features of Michigan’s public universities are the Basic Classifications, which consider number and types of degrees produced as well as research expenditures. You can see a full flowchart of how universities are sorted here, but in sum, here’s the typology:

  • Doctoral Universities
    • Doctoral Universities—Very high research: Confers at least 20 research doctorates (the Ph.D.) or at least 30 professional doctorates (physicians, dentists, lawyers, nurses, etc.), has at least $5M in research expenditures, and scores above a cutoff on a calculation examining types of research expenditures and faculty ranks. This includes Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
    • Doctoral Universities—High research: Confers at least 20 research doctorates or at least 30 professional doctorates, has at least $5M in research expenditures, and scores below a cutoff on a calculation examining types of research expenditures and faculty ranks. This includes Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Michigan Technological University, Oakland University, and Western Michigan University.
    • Doctoral/Professional Universities: Confers at least 20 research doctorates or at least 30 professional doctorates and has under $5M in research expenditures. This includes Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, and the University of Michigan-Flint.
  • Master’s Colleges and Universities
    • Master’s Universities—Larger: Confers at least 200 master’s degrees and fewer than 20 research doctorates. This includes Saginaw Valley State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
    • Master’s Universities—Medium: Confers 100 to 199 master’s degrees and fewer than 20 research doctorates. This includes Northern Michigan University.
  • Baccalaureate Colleges
    • Baccalaureate Colleges—Diverse Fields: At least 50% of all degrees awarded are bachelor’s degrees, less than half of bachelor’s degrees awarded are in arts and sciences majors, and confers fewer than 50 master’s degrees. This includes Lake Superior State University.
      • This is also an interesting categorization, because it reflects the difference between “arts and sciences” majors, like English, chemistry, history, or biology, and the applied fields majors, like education, business, or engineering. Looking at the mix of majors produced by an institution, available in IPEDS and sorted by CIP code, would also indicate a great deal about the mission of a university and the degree to which it is producing graduates in the various professions.

I focus a lot on Carnegie here because it has been used in Michigan in state funding formulas and similar efforts. But one thing that is very important to keep in mind, however, is that data are not neutral. The things measured by the Carnegie Classifications were deliberately chosen by people, not revealed as some form of universal truth. The cut scores that the Carnegie Classifications use are simply derived by some method they chose. These are one way to provide insight on what university missions are, but are not foolproof. I’ve watched the universities’ classifications jump around in the 2010, 2015, and 2018 versions of the classifications; the universities affected haven’t changed their missions repeatedly in just eight years, but the way that Carnegie counts and sort the universities has.

Other social and historical missions

There are countless missions for public universities and ways to consider examining them.

  • Is a university designed to be more selective to focus on top-achieving students and highly rigorous education or more open to provide access for all students and a chance to try? This is, of course, an oversimplification, but the admissions rates of universities can show some of this mission.
  • Similarly, is there a mission to educate the poorest students in the state and provide for economic mobility? This can be an expensive mission, given that these students require financial support and often additional academic support given substandard K-12 education and home life difficulties. Measuring the percentage of enrolled students who are eligible for the federal Pell Grant for very low-income students can indicate some of this mission.
  • In other states, public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or tribally controlled universities were created to fulfill a need for education for all, despite a system of formal and informal segregation. We don’t have any HBCUs in Michigan, but the state does have three tribal colleges that are under the control of their local tribal governments and all 12 tribal governments have staff devoted to increasing education attainment of their members.

In sum, the missions of public universities are many and diverse. There’s no such thing as a cookie cutter state university. Each state’s policymakers need to determine what’s important to them and their residents, but in no way does it make sense to treat public universities as interchangeable widget factories, as we sometimes do with K-12 schools to society’s detriment.


You can follow along with other Higher Ed 101 entries as I post them by going here. Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments!

Bob Murphy is the Chief Policy Officer at the Michigan Association of State Universities.

@BobWMurphy     @MASUmichigan