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What Is a Research University?

What Is a Research University?

What makes a university a research university? It's all about how the school prioritizes research, undergraduates and graduates. Read on to learn everything you need to know about research universities. Here are a few of them:

  • Yale University
  • University of California–Los Angeles
  • Arizona State University–Tempe
  • Duke University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • University of Southern California 
  • University of Michigan
  • Northwestern University
  • New York University
  • Stanford University
  • University of Virginia
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of Notre Dame

Although you’ll find these coveted institutions on many dream lists, most parents and teenagers don’t understand the missions of these universities.

All too often, families gravitate to the popular names without knowing much about an institution besides their position on U.S. News & World Report rankings and the reputation of their basketball and football teams. Here are eight things that you should to know about research universities.

1. It’s a Small Club

Universities that focus on the highest level of academic research are part of an elite group. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are just 115 universities that belong in this category. These universities award the most doctoral degrees, receive high levels of federal research dollars and offer a wide range of bachelor’s degree programs.

To illustrate just how small this category of universities is, in comparison there are 400 universities with large graduate programs that primarily focus on issuing master’s degrees.

2. Research Is the Top Mission

Academic research is what gives these alpha universities their panache. Research dollars keep universities running and support the work of professors.

The top universities can attract the best researchers. Nobel Prize winners routinely come from the ranks of these institutions. Professors are evaluated primarily on the papers they write and the research dollars they attract.

Graduate students, who represent the number two priority at research universities, facilitate much of the research at these universities. They are either actively involved in the research or they are tasked with teaching the undergraduates, which frees up professors to devote more time to their research projects.

3. Undergrads Are the Third Priority

Undergraduate students represent the third priority at these popular institutions. With professors focused on their own projects, graduates students are the primary contact for undergraduate students. So a professor might deliver lessons from a large lecture hall, but the graduate students, otherwise known as teaching assistants, conduct labs, grade tests and hold discussion groups.

Still, many research universities provide their undergraduate students with opportunities to participate in research projects. When evaluating research universities, it’s important to get a sense of just what kind of experience an undergraduate student would have at a specific institution.

4. Quality Teaching Is Not a Priority

Because research overshadows all other missions at these universities, good teaching is not a priority. In fact, instructing future PhDs on how to teach is often not done. Surveys of 3,500 faculty members at the University of Florida system, for instance, found that 80% never took one class for how to teach.

Teaching is not valued at these institutions is because it’s difficult to measure its quality. In contrast, you can easily measure a professor’s research output, like the number of peer-reviewed papers they wrote, where they are published and how many research grants they won.

Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, is a vocal advocate for improving teaching at universities. In an interview with National Public Radio recently, he had this to say, "The quality of teaching is not something that university administrators are rewarded for and correspondingly know or care about. If they improved the quality of teaching by 100% and in the process reduced the amount of research funding and publications by one percent, they would be penalized, since the latter is carefully measured and compared across institutions, while the former is never measured."

5. Don’t Pick a University by the Name

Research universities are not organizations that provide a uniformly excellent, good or mediocre education, so undergraduate experiences will vary by the department. For instance, if you major in the classics (not a popular discipline), you may get to know all of your professors and enjoy an intimate educational experience.

If you major in business at the same institution, most of your classes can be in lecture halls. Consequently, it can be a huge challenge to get to know even one professor well enough for a recommendation.

6. There Are Different Requirements for Admission

Research universities are so large that they are organized by colleges or schools within their institutions. For instance, there will be the College of Arts & Sciences, in which you’ll find the academic departments of the humanities, arts and sciences.

There will often be schools of engineering, law, medicine, business, education and other disciplines. Degree opportunities at some schools are only available to graduate students. That’s the case with the journalism schools at Columbia University and the University of California–Berkeley.

The admission requirements for these different academic worlds can vary within a university. For instance, while UCLA doesn’t require SAT subjects tests for general admission, those applying to the School of Engineering are highly encouraged to take the SAT Math Level 2 test, as well as a SAT subject test in a science discipline. On the engineering website, prospective students are told, “Merely meeting the minimum eligibility requirements of the university is rarely sufficient for admission to an engineering major.”

Students might be required to apply to a specific school or college within the university. Consequently, you’ll want to see how difficult it would be to transfer within majors. California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo, for instance, requires students to declare their major when they are applying and it can be difficult or even impossible for students to jump to a different major later.

7. Many Research Universities Offer Honors Colleges

Although research universities are massive, honors colleges within these institutions can be a great way to receive a more personalized education. Honors colleges provide a variety of perks to high-achieving accepted students that can include smaller classes, priority registration, faculty advisors and special housing. When evaluating universities, check out the admission requirements for their honors colleges.

8. There’s Another Type of University

Although research universities enjoy the spotlight, many more students attend master’s level universities. These schools offer fewer PhD programs while their graduate focus is primarily on master’s degree offerings. There can be a greater focus on undergraduates at some of these institutions. You’ll find the names of these institutions by looking in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual regional universities listings.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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