Proposed changes aimed at clarifying a classification system for universities have caused upset among status-minded campuses.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education categorises the amount of research and undergraduate education universities carry out, but not whether they are any good at it.
The first proposed changes in the classifications in five years have caused concern among schools intent on switching to categories they consider more prestigious.
"There have been unintended consequences, particularly around institutional ambition to move from one category to the next," said Alexander McCormick, senior scholar in charge of the classification system.
The classifications were first devised in 1970 by the Carnegie Foundation, a private foundation established by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The system is based on empirical data and is meant as a basis for research into higher education, differentiating the nation's 4,000 universities.
Until then, Dr McCormick said, there had been no satisfactory way to analyse the "glorious diversity" of US higher education. "It's a fairly chaotic system and hard to get a grip on. That was probably the main reason it caught on."
Universities with the largest number of enrolments or most robust spending on research and development would use this data to recruit students and faculty and pursue more research grants.
Dr McCormick cited "shameless spinning of the classification, where institutions are proclaiming that we have named them one of the top 3 per cent of universities". In fact, the institutions are simply among the 3 per cent whose size or structure fits within the highest classification.
"We can venture some pretty good guesses about why this happens. One is simply that there are not a lot of available metrics for performance for a complex institution like a university," he said.
The foundation has received an "ocean" of e-mails from university administrators asking about the proposed changes to the system.
Research universities are presently measured by the amount of federal grant money they take in, a figure distorted by the inclusion of federal financial aid and "pass throughs", or money given to one university to be shared among many partners.The new approach proposes to categorise institutions by the amount they spend on research, including money from private sources. Consequently, research in fields outside science and engineering will be counted. So will the number of postdoctoral appointees, who almost always are exclusively researchers; non-faculty research staff; and number of doctorates conferred.
Institutions' concerns stem from the fact that changes could cause some universities to move up or down the table.
"Colleges and universities, especially doctorate-granting universities, are extremely sensitive to comparisons and extremely competitive. They're always struggling to be in that top group, however it's defined," Dr McCormick said.
Last year, the classification system was changed for universities offering only associate degrees - mostly community colleges and two-year private colleges. They were previously in what Dr McCormick called "a single undifferentiated lump" and are the largest group of higher-education institutions.
"It was a conspicuous omission over the years that this group of institutions, which we knew to be diverse, was never differentiated."
Associate degree schools will now be divided by size, whether they are public or private, rural or urban, for profit or nonprofit.