A research university is simply a type of university that conducts more research relative to other colleges and universities. American universities are defined as research universities by the Carnegie Classification of Doctoral Universities. A university is considered a Doctoral University if it
- awards at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees
- or awards at least 30 professional practice doctoral degrees in at least two programs.
To meet the “High research activity” or “Very high research activity,” the Doctoral University must:
- award at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees and
- had at least $5 million in total research expenditures.
If you define research universities as only those with “Very high research activity,” there are only 130 in the United States. These are pretty much the most recognizable names in higher education including private institutions such as:
- University of Chicago
There are actually more public research universities, 93, than private, 37, and they include:
- University of Michigan
- University of Wisconsin
- University of Minnesota
- University of Washington
- University of Texas
So research universities have doctoral level graduate students and a minimum amount of money spent on research. This research is often a major source of economic development in the surrounding region if not the state.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, research universities tend to be big. The average has just under 20,000 undergraduates with an average of over 30,000 students of all types. These universities will be divided into colleges that will have their own requirements for degrees and sometimes even admissions.
For example, Honors Colleges almost always have a separate application process on top of regular admissions. Students applying to a College of Performing/Fine Arts often have to provide a portfolio or audition. At some research universities, students must declare their majors at admissions to gain access to colleges in high demand such as engineering or computer science.
Undergraduates should expect lower division classes to be large. Think of the traditional large lecture hall. At one point the 800 students at the University of California Berkeley were encourage to view their Economics lecture class from satellite rooms because of overcrowding in the auditorium. Universities often offer students the opportunity to test out of introductory classes using AP, IB, or CLEP exams but not always. When considering a university, it’s a good idea for students to browse the course schedule to get an idea of what class size to expect.
By the time students reach their upper division classes, their major classes should become smaller allowing students better opportunities to get to know their professors. Any undergraduates at a research university looking for faculty recommendations should make an effort to get to know professors as early as possible so they can write a meaningful recommendation.
The vast majority of state flagship universities are research universities. They also tend to be the oldest public institutions in the state. Their age along with the size ensure an extensive alumni network that benefits the universities in terms of state funding and research opportunities. It also makes them very convenient places for businesses to recruit. One stop can yield a large crop of potential employees for business recruiters.
So why should families care when deciding which colleges to apply to?
After all, just because a university is spending money on research doesn’t mean it’s not spending it on students as well. In fact, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) research universities have the highest average amount spent on Instruction per student among all the Carnegie Classifications. They also have the highest 4 year graduation rates. It’s no wonder research universities attract some of the most highly qualified students to their campuses every year.
But here’s the problem. All that extra money being spent on instruction isn’t going towards teaching undergraduates. It’s being used to pay for the graduate programs. Let’s face it, it cost a lot less to teach 500 students in a lecture hall than 5 students in a seminar room. Undergraduates are subsidizing graduate education at research universities.
And let’s talk about who is going to be doing the teaching. Too often it’s not the Nobel Prize winners that they talk about in campus brochures. You’re going to need an awful lot of them if you’re going to be using them for undergraduate teaching, even if it’s just at the upper division level. This is why I recommend students take a hard look at course schedules to see who is actually teaching the classes.
While some undergraduates may actually have a course with a faculty star at some point in their four years on campus, they’re more likely to have classes taught by adjunct faculty or graduate students. How else are they ever going to learn to teach?
As for the high graduation rates? That’s something called “self-selection.” The students who are attending these universities would succeed no matter where they went. The research university has little to do with their academic success.
Now I know that there are going to be people out there who believe that Research Universities are the ideal place for students to go who want to get involved in research. So it would seem. But at the very minimum, such students are going to be standing behind the graduate students in terms of opportunities.
According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, undergraduates at research universities don’t have any better of a chance at research opportunities than students at most other higher education institutions. The one exception is Liberal Arts Colleges (LAC). In 2019, 43% of seniors at LACs reported doing research with faculty compared to only 26% at research universities.
Of course, given the number of undergraduates at research universities, 26% is still a lot of students. And over the years, more Research Institutions have developed strong undergraduate research programs to make it easier for undergraduates even as freshman to participate in research projects.
In general, as state funding has been reduced, more research universities have been developing programs to keep undergraduates engaged and paying tuition. There are Honors Colleges, Learning Communities, and First Year Programs in addition to the usual advantages of large universities.
These are all positive developments for the quality of undergraduate education. However, high school students deciding which colleges to apply to should keep in mind that undergraduate teaching falls behind research and graduate education in terms of priorities at research universities.
||Size (all students)||Full-time Under-grads||4 yr Grad Rate||% Admitted|
|The University of Alabama||Public||AL||38,100||29,188||50||83|
|University of Alabama at Birmingham||Public||AL||22,080||10,377||40||74|
|Arizona State University-Tempe||Public||AZ||53,286||41,349||49||86|
|University of Arizona||Public||AZ||44,577||28,993||47||85|
|University of Arkansas||Public||AR||27,559||20,492||49||77|
|California Institute of Technology||Private||CA||2,237||938||84||6|
|University of California-Berkeley||Public||CA||43,185||30,094||76||16|
|University of California-Davis||Public||CA||38,634||30,053||63||39|
|University of California-Irvine||Public||CA||36,908||29,774||69||27|
|University of California-Los Angeles||Public||CA||44,371||30,912||80||12|
|University of California-Riverside||Public||CA||25,547||21,614||56||57|
|University of California-San Diego||Public||CA||38,736||29,870||65||31|
|University of California-Santa Barbara||Public||CA||26,314||22,882||68||30|
|University of California-Santa Cruz||Public||CA||19,494||16,991||52||51|
|University of Southern California||Private||CA||48,321||19,537||78||11|
|Colorado State University-Fort Collins||Public||CO||33,426||22,179||45||81|
|University of Colorado Boulder||Public||CO||37,883||28,921||46||78|
|University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus||Public||CO||24,910||8,858||24||67|
|University of Connecticut||Public||CT||27,280||18,282||73||49|
|University of Delaware||Public||DE||23,808||18,301||72||71|
|George Washington University||Private||DC||27,814||11,111||76||41|
|Florida International University||Public||FL||58,711||28,116||34||58|
|Florida State University||Public||FL||42,450||29,943||68||36|
|University of Central Florida||Public||FL||69,402||42,747||44||44|
|University of Florida||Public||FL||52,407||32,219||67||37|
|University of Miami||Private||FL||17,811||10,742||73||27|
|University of South Florida-Main Campus||Public||FL||44,246||25,494||60||48|
|Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus||Public||GA||36,302||14,368||46||21|
|Georgia State University||Public||GA||35,041||22,089||28||76|
|University of Georgia||Public||GA||38,920||28,057||65||45|
|University of Hawaii at Manoa||Public||HI||17,490||10,610||34||58|
|University of Chicago||Private||IL||17,452||6,822||90||6|
|University of Illinois at Chicago||Public||IL||32,324||20,126||34||73|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||Public||IL||51,605||32,755||70||59|
|Purdue University-Main Campus||Public||IN||45,500||32,520||58||60|
|University of Notre Dame||Private||IN||12,683||8,732||91||16|
|Iowa State University||Public||IA||33,372||26,596||47||92|
|University of Iowa||Public||IA||31,240||21,134||55||83|
|Kansas State University||Public||KS||21,719||15,489||37||95|
|University of Kansas||Public||KS||27,552||17,307||48||93|
|University of Kentucky||Public||KY||29,402||20,679||45||96|
|University of Louisville||Public||KY||21,670||11,578||37||69|
|Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College||Public||LA||31,756||22,727||41||75|
|Tulane University of Louisiana||Private||LA||12,923||7,262||77||13|
|Johns Hopkins University||Private||MD||27,079||5,756||87||11|
|University of Maryland-College Park||Public||MD||40,743||28,375||69||44|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Private||MA||11,520||4,485||87||7|
|University of Massachusetts-Amherst||Public||MA||31,350||22,514||74||64|
|Michigan State University||Public||MI||49,809||35,650||56||71|
|University of Michigan-Ann Arbor||Public||MI||48,090||30,328||80||23|
|Wayne State University||Public||MI||26,824||13,056||20||73|
|University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||Public||MN||51,327||29,890||69||57|
|Mississippi State University||Public||MS||22,226||17,101||35||54|
|University of Mississippi||Public||MS||21,617||15,950||46||88|
|University of Southern Mississippi||Public||MS||14,133||9,623||28||97|
|University of Missouri-Columbia||Public||MO||30,014||20,782||48||81|
|Washington University in St Louis||Private||MO||16,191||7,118||89||14|
|Montana State University||Public||MT||16,692||12,398||27||82|
|University of Nebraska-Lincoln||Public||NE||25,390||19,045||41||78|
|University of Nevada-Las Vegas||Public||NV||31,171||19,629||17||81|
|University of Nevada-Reno||Public||NV||20,993||14,702||33||88|
|University of New Hampshire-Main Campus||Public||NH||14,788||11,993||68||84|
|New Jersey Institute of Technology||Public||NJ||11,518||6,859||37||73|
|Rutgers University-New Brunswick||Public||NJ||50,173||34,350||65||61|
|University of New Mexico-Main Campus||Public||NM||22,729||12,651||29||94|
|Columbia University in the City of New York||Private||NY||31,456||7,728||86||5|
|New York University||Private||NY||52,885||25,902||76||16|
|Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||Private||NY||7,528||6,241||66||47|
|Stony Brook University||Public||NY||26,814||16,655||59||44|
|SUNY at Albany||Public||NY||17,544||12,622||56||54|
|University at Buffalo||Public||NY||31,923||20,387||59||61|
|University of Rochester||Private||NY||12,233||6,441||80||30|
|North Carolina State University at Raleigh||Public||NC||36,304||22,856||57||45|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||Public||NC||29,877||18,579||84||23|
|Case Western Reserve University||Private||OH||11,874||5,222||68||27|
|Ohio State University-Main Campus||Public||OH||61,391||42,604||62||54|
|University of Cincinnati-Main Campus||Public||OH||39,263||23,836||35||77|
|Oklahoma State University-Main Campus||Public||OK||24,079||17,235||41||70|
|University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus||Public||OK||28,079||18,938||44||80|
|Oregon State University||Public||OR||31,719||18,635||35||82|
|University of Oregon||Public||OR||22,517||17,377||56||82|
|Carnegie Mellon University||Private||PA||14,180||6,419||76||15|
|Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus||Public||PA||91,427||66,206||53||76|
|University of Pennsylvania||Private||PA||26,675||10,447||86||8|
|University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus||Public||PA||32,686||18,474||65||57|
|University of South Carolina-Columbia||Public||SC||35,364||26,402||64||69|
|The University of Tennessee-Knoxville||Public||TN||29,460||22,126||52||79|
|Texas A & M University-College Station||Public||TX||68,726||47,874||55||58|
|Texas Tech University||Public||TX||38,742||27,949||36||69|
|The University of Texas at Arlington||Public||TX||48,635||19,499||26||83|
|The University of Texas at Austin||Public||TX||51,090||37,352||66||32|
|The University of Texas at Dallas||Public||TX||29,543||17,847||52||79|
|The University of Texas at El Paso||Public||TX||25,177||13,928||13||100|
|University of Houston||Public||TX||46,148||28,176||32||65|
|University of North Texas||Public||TX||39,336||26,049||35||74|
|University of Utah||Public||UT||32,852||18,609||33||62|
|George Mason University||Public||VA||37,863||21,596||50||87|
|University of Virginia-Main Campus||Public||VA||25,012||16,330||89||24|
|Virginia Commonwealth University||Public||VA||29,757||19,868||45||87|
|Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University||Public||VA||36,383||28,714||65||70|
|University of Washington-Seattle Campus||Public||WA||47,576||29,482||66||52|
|Washington State University||Public||WA||31,607||23,195||37||76|
|West Virginia University||Public||WV||26,839||19,399||39||84|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||Public||WI||44,257||30,131||62||54|
|University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee||Public||WI||25,731||17,519||19||77|