When to use the terms PUI, SLAC, MSI, HSI, RPU, etc.?


We’ve got an acronym problem when it comes to classifying colleges and universities. No, it’s not that we have too many acronyms. Our problem is that the commonly used acronyms rarely capture the distinctions that we’re trying to specify.

While I’ve already taken a stab at describing institutions with a typology that I think holds up really well, I think it would be really useful to provide y’all with a rundown of more common and less common acronyms, indicating not only what they include, but also what they don’t include.

I think this is important because because a lot of folks are interested in contrasting R1 institutions (Research-Intensive Universities) with non-R1 institutions and most of us can use an update to our vocabulary. I’ve seen lots of things funding solicitations and opportunities that are designed to reach faculty and students who are not at R1s but want to positively refer to institutions by what they are rather than what they are not. However, is a tremendous diversity of non-R1s, and we have no single phrase or acronym that captures any essence of non-R1ness other than saying “non-R1s.”

No, I’m not proposing to fix this with a new acronym, but let’s at least use the most appropriate terms for what we’re trying to say. Some terms align very well with Carnegie Classifications, others from the US Department of Education, others NSF, and so on. And yeah, this is entirely US-centric. I’m not the guy to be talking to about Canadian U15s and non-U15s, for example.

I’d like to start out by introducing you to a term that has really grown into common use in recent years:

RPU: Regional Public University. There is no single criterion that is used to define an RPU, but you know it when you see it. That said, at this writing the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges has identified over 400 RPUs in the United States. I think it really matters to clearly talk about RPUs and their role in the higher education landscape, because “due to an absence of a list of RPUs and a systematic way to identify and define them… RPUs were largely invisible in scholarly and policy discussions.” So what’s an RPU? Think of public universities that attract and support students in their own metropolitan area or rural region. Some RPUs have more research than others, and some have more graduate programs than others, but they tend to prioritize educational effectiveness and promote social mobility. RPUs have student bodies that look like the people who live in that region. Good RPUs know what they are, and have an institutional mission not to aspire to become an R1, but instead, to become the best they can be for the students they serve. RPUs are warehouses of expertise in student mentorship, community-engaged scholarship, teaching effectiveness, and the implementation of practices that promote equity, access, and justice. Even though RPUs are often underresourced, these universities have grown to become great at these things because these roles are at the heart of their missions, and they’ve been forced to innovate simply out of need. Most of the innovations in education, mentoring, DEIJ, and community-engaged scholarship that you see heavily publicized at R1s tend to be heavily branded ports of work that has already been honed at RPUs. For example, stuff like this or like this.

Let’s walk through some of the other acronyms.

PUI: Primarily Undergraduate Institution. This is a very large umbrella that encompasses a lot of places. I’m not sure about where this term originated but it’s used by the National Science Foundation for places that award very few, if any, PhD degrees. (The threshold is 20 PhDs over the course of the two previous years.) For a scientist, for all practical terms what it means to be at a PUI is that you aren’t running a lab with PhD students. Which means that as the PI, you’re the person who is the driving force behind most or all of the papers coming out of your lab. When I created this site just over 10 years ago (!), it was to talk about what it means to be at a PUI. At that point I had served as faculty or three extremely different kinds of PUIs. I’ve now been at an RPU for since 2007, and I think I’ve really taken on that RPU flavor but I imagine that this stuff is more broadly informative for folks at other PUIs and everybody else out there who shares the research community wity those of us at PUIs. Also, keep in mind that 2-year institutions with little to no scholarship expectations of faculty are also classified as PUIs. Oftentimes, folks with say “PUI” when what they really mean is “4-year PUI.”

SLAC: Small Liberal Arts College. SLACs are closely oriented around the undergraduate experience. Nearly all SLACs are private. They tend to have small class sizes, students living in dorms, and a higher frequency of helicopter parents. To be clear, science is most definitely a liberal art. SLACs emphasize traditional academic disciplines as opposed to the availability of more career-oriented training you’re likely to find at an RPU. To quote myself, “Liberal arts seems to be about fundamental ideas and skills: writing, problem-solving, history, arts, scientific investigation, rhetoric, and stuff like that. For example, economics would be liberal arts, but a business degree would not be. A neuroscience degree would be liberal arts, but not a speech pathology degree.” Low-endowment SLACs might decide to shore up their finances end up building more vocational programs such as nursing and offer MBAs, but still be a SLAC. The level of prestige in SLACs is highly variable and generally tied to those odious US News and World Rankings, and the major predictor of those rankings is the per-student size of the endowment. Teaching loads at SLACs are highly variable, though one constant is that there are institutional exceptions of attentive mentorship and deep engagement in the life of the institution. (Note: while some folks will say that the S stands for “selective” that’s usually just the conceit of the high-endowment SLACs that like to set themselves apart by emphasizing their rejectivity.) Over the years of running this site I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of romantic thinking among junior scientists about being a professor at a SLAC, with the idea that it provides a more balanced pace of life that is outside the cannibalizing environment of many PhD-granting institutions. I work really really hard to disabuse folks of this notion, and communicate that life at SLACs can typically just as stressful and difficult as any other kind of university, and perhaps moreso because there can be very high expectations simultaneously for teaching AND research AND service. And life at high-endowment SLACs is very different than low-endowment SLACs.

R1 vs R2 Universities: These are research-intensive institutions with a distinction set by the Carnegie Classification people. To be an R1, you need a higher “research activity index” indicated by the amount of research funds spent, doctoral degrees granted, and the number of non-student research staff (postdocs, technicians, etc.). From the faculty perspective, the experience at some R2s might be very similar to the R1 experience, and other R2s might be closer to an RPU (and I imagine that some RPUs are classified as R2s).

MSI: Minority-Serving Institution. This is a broadly used term because it can broadly mean a lot of things. In many contexts, a university is an MSI if it meets the criteria for any of the following seven destinations: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs), Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (ANNHs), Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). But for some avenues of funding in STEM, MSI classification means that a university needs to enroll at least 50% of students that are classified into at least one of those minority groups: American Indian, Alaskan Native, Black (not of Hispanic origin), Hispanic, Pacific Islander. (Note that this MSI designation does not include Asians and there is no granularity separating east Asians, south Asians, and southeast Asians, so for example these critiera have no room for distinction among folks from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Korea.)

Keep in mind that when you’re talking about MSIs, this is not mutually exclusive with research-intensive universities. I mean, UC Berkeley is an MSI.

HSI: Hispanic-Serving Institution. This is a classification from the federal government indicating that least 25% of the student body are Hispanic and/or Latino. That’s it. While many RPUs are HSIs simply because they’re located in regions that have a lot of folks with this identity, any institution can be an HSI.

HBCU vs PBI: Historically Black Colleges and Universities vs. Predominantly Black Institutions. I think a lot of folks say HBCU when what they really mean to say are PBIs. HBCUs are universities that are specifically designed to serve Black students and have to be created for that purpose before 1964. Whereas PBIs have a few criteria, but they are campuses that enroll at least 40% Black students and have at least 50% low-income or first-gen undergraduates. Not all HBCUs are PBIs, and many PBIs are not HBCUs.

AANAPISI: Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions. The federal government calls you one of these if at least 10% of student enrollment falls into one or more of these categories, and if 50% of enrolled students are low-income. This is a useful MSI category because it captures campuses with underserved Asian American populations. While some very wealthy schools might enroll more than 10% Asian American students, they don’t qualify as an AANAPISI because of the low-income criterion.

TCU vs NASNTI: Tribal Colleges and Universities vs. Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions. While the 35 TCUs in the United States were built with the mission to serve tribal communities, NASNTIs are a federal designation for institutions that have an enrollment that is at least 10% Native American.

PWI: Primarily White Institution. You might guess that this isn’t an official designation, but it’s evolved into our lexicon. Some folks see this as any institution that isn’t an MSI, while others might see it as a smaller subset of places that are on the whiter end of the spectrum, with policies and practices that implicitly center whiteness. See also: HWCU (Historically White Colleges and Universities).

Ivy League Universities: Who cares? Only 0.4% percent of undergraduates in the US are attending one of the 8 Ivies.

And those are some commonly used terms for universities based on student population and institutional mission. Please make sure that your choice of acronym identifies the places and the people you have in mind!

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