The Benchmarking Potential of the New Carnegie Classification: Community Engagement

Theme: Embedding Engagement

Amy Driscoll
Associate Senior Scholar
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, DC
Constituent Group:
Much like other assessment terms, benchmarking has been used appropriately and inappropriately to rate, compare, chart progress, and evaluate. Palomba and Banta (1999) provide a definition that comes close to the processes and potential for the new Carnegie classification — Community Engagement. The authors describe benchmarking as a "promising practice" defined as "the process of identifying and learning from institutions that are recognized for outstanding practices." They add that benchmarking often includes careful study of "best" or "promising practices." In contrast, the processes of rating or comparing are not intended with the new classification. The benchmarking potential of the new Community Engagement classification began with its development processes — using insights about outstanding practices from two major sources:
  1. The efforts of major national groups or organizations — Campus Compact's study and publication of the indicators of community engagement at community colleges, an assessment tool developed by the Community Campus Partnerships for Health, and the Defining and Benchmarking Engagement Project of NASULGC's CIC Committee on Engagement.
  2. A pilot study sponsored by Carnegie to examine community engagement practices as indicators for a documentation framework and conducted at 14 institutions (see Carnegie website for list of pilot institutions).
A framework draft was derived from the first source. That draft then became the focus of a careful study by those pilot institutions as they examined "promising practices" in their self-assessment and documentation approaches. Their work paved the way for the institutions that would later apply for the new classification by determining the significance, practicality, and usefulness of practice indicators. Most importantly, their pilot documentation trials achieved an inclusive framework that would respect and affirm the diversity of approaches to community engagement in higher education. Within that inclusive framework is the potential for self-study and reflection for a wide range of institutions. The 2006 Community Engagement classification applications reflect that range of fit and exemplify the motivation for and interest in self-assessment of community engagement practices. Just as important as those intentions of campus applications are the intentions of those institutions that have decided not to apply, but to focus on continued development and/or implementation of "promising practices." The benchmarking potential of the new Carnegie classification is already demonstrated and contributing to the future of community engagement in higher education. The benchmarking potential of the new community engagement classification can be further demonstrated through three major questions and related issues. Those questions and issues take us into the future of both community engagement and a classification that achieves benchmarking.

Question 1: Why Apply for the New Classification —Community Engagement?

The Carnegie classification has been intensely welcomed by institutions from across the country. The first round of applications derive from a wide range of institutions in terms of type, size, student population, program emphasis, and geographical location. My conversations with colleagues at those institutions reveal a broad list of very diverse reasons for their celebratory wishes and their applications. An exploration of those rationales and/or motivations leads to questions and possible implications for community engagement in general. Some institutions see the classification as an opportunity for national recognition, a way to honor the efforts of engaged scholars, or as a connection with the cachet of the Carnegie name. The documentation process is extensive and requires time and resources on the part of an institution to meet the requirements. When asked "why?" a number of institutional representatives responded that having a Carnegie classification was worth the work. When probed with a further "why?" the responses included use in grant seeking, communicating with community, and responding to constituencies for accountability purposes. Other institutions genuinely encourage the inquiry and evidence gathering associated with the documentation required for classification. Again, the issue of work is raised, but most institutions responded that the actual data gathering and tracking for documentation was "long overdue." It is one of the areas of community engagement that continues to demand more attention and resources than previously realized. Bob Bringle (2006) has assessed the situation on many campuses as "underreported" due to a variety of factors. The lack of common language, even in what we call this concept (community engagement vs civic engagement vs and so on), leads to difficulties in reporting and assessing. The lack of models for assessing and evaluating impact also contributes to the underreporting or lack of reporting conditions. There are those institutions, labeled prestigious for their achievements in research, grant funding, and related scholarship, who seek to associate their reputation with community engagement to achieve a more holistic description of the institution. There have been some assumptions over the last 20 years that the traditional Research I institutions would probably not pursue community engagement to any significant extent. Thus, some of the interest on the part of those institutions is to demonstrate to their higher education peers that an institution can achieve multiple forms of scholarship. There is also an intent to focus resources and agendas on community engagement from within those institutions. Finally, there are those institutions, often prompted by individuals on the campus, who want to use the classification to highlight their lack of progress and to increase momentum to improve their engagement practices. I was told by those individuals that they were aware that they could not meet the requirements for the classification, and that such deficits would prompt attention from upper administration and motivate colleagues to dedicate more resources to the agenda. This discussion of the varied reasons and motivations for interest in and applications to the new classification is not intended as judgment but rather as a description of the ways that the classification can serve higher education. We think that its documentation framework will stand as a source of "promising practices" reflecting the best work in community engagement in higher education. We intend that it be useful for self-study, planning, and guidance to those institutions that are in the early stages of developing an agenda of community engagement. We hope that other reasons and ultimately other purposes are served by using the documentation framework of the new community engagement classification.

Question 2: Inclusive vs. Exclusive Classification?

One of the major challenges of developing a documentation framework for the community engagement classification was the commitment to an inclusive framework. Our intention was to design a framework that respected the diversity of engagement approaches and the differences between institutions of higher education. We identified practices and environmental supports that are essential for community engagement to be institutionalized but did not specify what those practices would look like. For example, the practice of "assessing community perceptions about the effectiveness of the institution's engagement with community" is an essential practice, but we have seen multiple forms of that practice. There are campuses that use surveys and focus groups, and there are campuses that host a monthly council of community advisors to inform the institution's role in the community. There are colleges that send representatives to ongoing community meetings to check in on those perceptions, and universities with a community member as an official advisor to the administrative council. We expect that we will see at least a few more approaches to the practice of assessing community perceptions in our first round of applications. On the other hand, there are practices that most of us would agree are essential to institutionalized community engagement that have not been implemented broadly in higher education. The issue of the scholarship of community engagement being specified in promotion and tenure guidelines is one that caused the most disagreement among the pilot campuses in 2005. Support for the practice was almost unanimous but when representatives considered their own institutions, they agreed that most of their institutions would not qualify for the classification if that practice became a requirement. We returned to the issue many times and could never achieve real agreement. We reached a compromise by including it as an optional requirement, one of four optional requirements to be selected. We expect that if it had been a requirement, the classification would have become an exclusive one with very few institutions meeting the requirements. That expectation left us with questions...would it be better to include such a requirement and have only a very small number of institutions be classified?...would it prompt institutions to implement such practices for purposes of achieving classification? The issue of the scholarship of community engagement and its inclusion in promotion and tenure guidelines is a significant one to be revisited consistently in the future of the community engagement classification. It opens up related issues such as the preparation of future faculty, hiring practices, and acceptance of alternative forms of scholarship. It leads to questions of frequency of classification revisions, applications, and depth of documentation.

Question 3: What Kind of Data? Quantitative vs. Qualitative?

In line with the intention to be inclusive with the new classification, the issue of quantitative data became problematic. Unlike the traditional classification system, there are no national data sources for community engagement that could be used for classification purposes. Many of the "promising practices" (mission statements, infrastructure, leadership) do not lend themselves to quantitative data well and those that do (service learning courses, number of faculty and students) are influenced by size, location, program emphasis, and other qualities of the institution. The lack of comparable quantitative data leads to further issues of review and decision making about which institutions are classified and which are not. There are issues of "how much engagement?' for classification, or "how much involvement constitutes an engaged campus?" The question of how much and how to document is not solely in the hands of the Carnegie work group. Fortunately, the classification for community engagement has been introduced at a time when major organizations are also focused on benchmarking and/or assessing engagement. The efforts of NASULGC, Campus Compact, and Community Campus Partnerships for Health and Campus Compact guided the Carnegie developments and the intention is for continued collaboration in future developments. In some ways, the efforts to quantify community engagement for classification is a microcosm of the challenge of assessing and evaluating community engagement in general. There is uncertainty among many engaged colleagues that quantification of community engagement is not even an appropriate endeavor. There are also those colleagues that experience huge discomfort with the lack of quantification. In sum, it is expected that those questions will be expanded and others will emerge from the first round of review of applications — documentation submitted by institutions seeking classification. The resulting data base of documentation has the potential to guide, inform, and model a wide array of "promising practices" and achieve its benchmarking function. In addition, the ongoing revision of the classification framework, ongoing applications from an expanding cadre of institutions, and ongoing reviews of institutional documentation will be characterized by extended inquiry processes. Those inquiry processes can serve as a reflection of the efforts, insights, and new practices that emerge with the future growth and expansion of community engagement in higher education.

Bringle, R. (2006). Personal communication.

Palomba, C. A., & Banta, T. W. (1999). Assessment essentials: Plannning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.