MIT dome

America’s Great Research Universities

American research universities have been the source of many of the defining discoveries of the modern world. A short list includes lasers, the design of the Internet, the Richter scale, magnetic resonance imaging, advances in health care based on stem cell research, digital computers, nanotechnology, bar code technology, DNA, gene mapping, a cure for childhood leukemia, the pap smear, solid state electronics, integrated circuitry, global positioning technology, and fetal monitors. There are countless other examples of discoveries made by university researchers that have been a boon to the world’s economy and to human society in general.

Our research universities are a nexus of knowledge, experimentation, and innovation. Over half of the nation’s basic research is conducted at these universities and students are an integral part of that research. Studies indicate that undergraduate students who engage in research are twice as likely to graduate and five times more likely to complete graduate school. Many such students become the next generation of scientists, those who will make discoveries that enable further advances in the human condition.

Research universities, since the post-war expansion 70 years ago under an enlightened national science policy, have been, through the sheer volume of their discoveries, a major force in the growth of the U.S. economy. In the 21st century, the scientific output of these universities has become even more necessary due to the decline of corporate research laboratories such as Bell Labs (discoverers of transistors, optical fibers, Unix OS, cosmic microwaves, etc.) and Xerox PARC (discoverers of local area networks, the graphical user interface, laser printing, Internet protocols, the mouse, etc.).

Research universities hire their tenured and tenure-track faculty to engage in research as well as teaching. They produce a prodigious volume of publications through which they disseminate their research methods and findings. Whereas other universities focus almost exclusively on educating students, research universities seek not only to educate but also to generate inventions and discoveries.

The concept of education based primarily in the humanities arose during the English enlightenment and was the founding influence on early American colleges. The concept of the research university, based as much in the sciences as the arts, arose later in Germany. The first American research university, Johns Hopkins, was founded in 1876, well after the 17th century founding of colleges like Harvard and William & Mary that were based on the English tradition.

The values that are vital to the concept of the research university are the foundation on which our research universities were built. These values are summarized below.

  • Meritocracy – Only those who produce the best results advance.
  • Academic Freedom – The tenure system.
  • Skepticism – Willingness to consider extreme ideas and to subject them to scrutiny using the scientific method.
  • Free Inquiry – Extended to students as well as faculty.
  • New Knowledge – The desire to make useful discoveries.
  • Universality – The belief that discoveries should be made available to everyone and that the discoverers shouldn’t profit from them.
  • Peer Review – Adherence to the system by which experts judge whether proposed research is worthy of funding.

Since the European upheaval of the 1930’s and 40’s, the research university has evolved to its most advanced state in the United States. Our research universities are dominant in most international rankings, with about 75% of the top 50 institutions. American research university scientists have won over 350 Nobel prizes, more than any other country.

Let’s consider two rankings of research universities in the U.S. As always, rankings shouldn’t be used as the sole means of assessing value. However, the variation in rankings based on two differing methodologies can yield useful information.

In the table below, the column on the left is the ranking of American research universities by Best College Reviews. Their list is based on three criteria, weighed equally; 1) The university must have at least one research center or institute that functions under the aegis of the university but as a separate entity (the reason Harvard isn’t listed), 2) There are opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research, and, 3) The university receives federal funds for research projects.

The column on the right is the ranking of College Choice. Their methodology is more subjective. It’s based on interviews with freshman to obtain their rationale for having selected a research university. This information is combined with factors such as academic reputation and post-college incomes.

Table: Top 20 American Research Universities

No. Best College Reviews No. College Choice
1 MIT 1 Yale
2 UCLA 2 Harvard
3 Johns Hopkins 3 MIT
4 Texas A&M 4 Stanford
5 Princeton 5 Columbia
6 Cal Tech 6 Cal Tech
7 Yale 7 Princeton
8 Cornell 8 Duke
9 Georgia Tech 9 Penn
10 Emory 10 Dartmouth
11 Stanford 11 Johns Hopkins
12 Northwestern 12 Vanderbilt
13 Berkeley 13 Rice
14 Columbia 14 Brown
15 Michigan 15 Cornell
16 UC Davis 16 Northwestern
17 Oregon Health & Sciences 17 Notre Dame
18 Washington 18 Chicago
19 Brown 19 Berkeley
20 Virginia 20 Washington Univ. in St. Louis

Despite the tremendous contribution that research universities have made to our country, there has arisen a nascent threat to their excellence. Academic freedom and free inquiry are under scrutiny by those who view science skeptically and who seek to diminish the autonomy of research universities and researchers. The decades-long compatibility between government and the universities is eroding.

Regardless of the state of the relationship between certain factions and academia, a rewarding career in science based on an education at one of America’s top-tier research universities continues to be an excellent plan for motivated college-bound students with the requisite aptitudes. If you feel that you are such a student, you should retain the services of IvySelect as your college admissions consulting firm.

IvySelect provides superior comprehensive and individualized counseling based on years of experience in guiding students to success in meeting their educational goals. Some of the elite research universities to which our students have been admitted include Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Chicago, Cornell, Washington University in St. Louis, Penn, Brown, Duke, Princeton, Emory, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Cal Tech, Virginia, Berkeley, Michigan, and UCLA.