What is a Research University?

on June 15, 2017

Most of the universities with the shiniest brand names are officially known as research universities.


You could rattle off a bunch of them without thinking too hard. Here are a few of them:

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


All too often, families gravitate to the brand names without knowing much about an institution besides its vaulted position within U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings and the reputation of its men’s basketball and football teams.


Here are eight things that you should to know about research universities:


1. It’s a Small Club


Universities focused on the highest level of academic research represent an elite group. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are just 115 universities that belong in the category. In general, these universities award the most doctoral degrees each year, receive high levels of outside research dollars from the federal government and elsewhere 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 No. 1 Mission  


Academic research is what gives the alpha universities their panache. Research dollars help 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 No. 2 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


Although families rarely appreciate this reality, undergrads represent the third priority at these popular institutions. With professors focused on their own projects, graduates students typically are the primary contact that undergrads will have. A professor might deliver lessons from a large lecture hall, but it’s the graduate students, otherwise known as teaching assistants, who 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 undergrad 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 Ph.Ds 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 percent never had taken one class on how to teach.


One reason why teaching itself 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:  The number of peer-reviewed papers they have written, where they have been published and how many research grants they have won.


Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, has been a vocal and tireless 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 percent and in the process reduced the amount of research funding and publications by 1 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 its Name


Research universities are not monolithic organizations that provide a uniformly excellent, good or mediocre quality education across the board.


Undergraduate experiences will vary by department. For instance, if you major in the classics (not a popular discipline), you may get to know all your departmental professors and enjoy an intimate educational experience. Major in business at the same institution and all or most of your classes could be held in lecture halls. Consequently, it could be a huge challenge to get to know even one professor well enough for a recommendation.


6. Research Universities have Different Internal 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 within 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 only will be available to graduate students. That’s the case, for instance, with the journalism schools at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.


The admission requirements for these different academic fiefdoms can vary within a university. For instance, while UCLA doesn’t require SAT subjects tests for its 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. On the engineering website, prospective students are told, “merely meeting the minimum eligibility requirements of the university are 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 check on how difficult it would be to transfer within majors. California Polytechnic State University in 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, which are especially prevalent among state universities, 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.


Learn more here: 8 Things You Should Know About 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 Ph.D 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 Amazon.com.

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