FAQ: What are research universities and why should students care?

FAQ: What are research universities and why should students care?

Note asking what are research universitiesDefining a Research University
Research Universities are Large
Research Universities are Focused on Faculty Research
Best Research Opportunities
List of Research Universities in the United States

Defining a Research University

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.

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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:

  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • MIT
  • Vanderbilt
  • 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.

Research Universities are Large

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.

Table comparing research universites to other institutions

Research Universities are Focused on Faculty Research

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.

Best Research Opportunities?

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.

List of Research Universities in the United States

Name Type State
Size (all students) Full-time Under-grads 4 yr Grad Rate % Admitted
Auburn University Public AL 30,460 22,626 51 81
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
Stanford University Private CA 17,249 6,996 73 4
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
Yale University Private CT 13,609 6,092 88 6
University of Delaware Public DE 23,808 18,301 72 71
George Washington University Private DC 27,814 11,111 76 41
Georgetown University Private DC 19,593 7,062 91 14
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
Emory University Private GA 14,415 7,047 82 16
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
Northwestern University Private IL 22,448 8,248 84 9
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
Indiana University-Bloomington Public IN 43,260 32,091 67 78
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
Boston College Private MA 14,747 9,703 90 27
Boston University Private MA 33,720 16,904 84 19
Brandeis University Private MA 5,825 3,688 81 30
Harvard University Private MA 31,655 7,145 85 5
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Private MA 11,520 4,485 87 7
Northeastern University Private MA 22,207 14,202 18
Tufts University Private MA 11,878 5,730 88 15
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
Dartmouth College Private NH 6,606 4,414 87 8
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
Princeton University Private NJ 8,419 5,314 90 6
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
Binghamton University Public NY 18,124 13,882 72 41
Columbia University in the City of New York Private NY 31,456 7,728 86 5
Cornell University Private NY 24,027 15,043 87 11
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
Syracuse University Private NY 22,850 14,664 72 44
University at Buffalo Public NY 31,923 20,387 59 61
University of Rochester Private NY 12,233 6,441 80 30
Duke University Private NC 16,766 6,583 88 8
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
Drexel University Private PA 24,205 13,873 26 75
Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus Public PA 91,427 66,206 53 76
Temple University Public PA 38,794 26,141 52 60
University of Pennsylvania Private PA 26,675 10,447 86 8
University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus Public PA 32,686 18,474 65 57
Brown University Private RI 10,333 6,802 83 7
Clemson University Public SC 25,822 19,387 60 51
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
Vanderbilt University Private TN 13,131 6,817 88 9
Rice University Private TX 7,282 3,949 84 9
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

 

 

 

FAQ: What are research universities and why should students care?

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