What Is a Research University?

Research universities invest in research and development. Learn more about R1 schools and the reasons to choose a research university.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Updated June 3, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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What Is a Research University?
Image Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images


Check out any list of the best colleges in the country and you'll find dozens of research universities. But what is a research university? And what are the benefits of attending one?

Research universities developed antibiotics, radio technology, search engine algorithms, surveying methods, and even barcodes. These institutions invest in new technologies and innovate in diverse fields. As drivers of discovery, research universities play a major role in the economy.

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On top of an exceptional track record in research, these universities also stand out for their teaching. As a result, students benefit from attending research universities.

What Are Research Universities?

As you might guess, a research university prioritizes research. At these institutions, graduate students, postdocs, and professors conduct original research in diverse fields.

Research universities can be public or private institutions. By definition, research universities offer master's and doctoral degrees along with bachelor's degrees.

The concept of a research university dates back to the 19th century. In the U.S., Johns Hopkins University was the first research university. Johns Hopkins aimed to combine the undergraduate systems of Oxford and Cambridge with the emerging emphasis on research at German universities.

The model took off, and by the 20th century, the number of research universities exploded — with research budgets skyrocketing and a new emphasis on research-focused teaching. Unlike European universities, where undergraduates rarely participate in research, U.S. research universities encourage research throughout higher education.

Carnegie Classifications

In the U.S., the higher education system includes community colleges, technical schools, liberal arts institutions, regional colleges, and research universities. In 1970, the Carnegie Classifications began categorizing these diverse institutions.

The Carnegie Classifications recognize R1 universities as the most research-intensive institutions. These institutions offer at least 20 research or scholarship-based doctoral degrees and spend at least $5 million on research each year.

An R1 institution has very high research activity, according to the classification. Brandeis University provides a list of R1 research universities. Many of the best universities in the country fall into this category. In 2021, 137 institutions received an R1 classification.

Top-Ranked R1 Research Universities

What Are the Benefits of Attending a Research University?

Research universities offer several benefits for students, even undergraduates in non-research fields. Compared to smaller institutions, R1 universities typically offer more majors, for example. And students at any level can benefit from the resources at a research university.

More Research Opportunities

At the undergraduate and graduate levels, research universities simply offer more research opportunities.

Undergrads can gain research experience through research programs or independent study opportunities. Grad students work in labs, build prototypes, and conduct archival research at R1 universities.

Distinguished Professors

Research universities attract exceptional faculty members, including experts in STEM, medicine, the social sciences, and law. Distinguished researchers often teach at R1 institutions.

These professors balance their research contributions with teaching undergrads and grad students. Learners benefit from studying with experts in their field.

Cutting-Edge Research Equipment

Top-ranked research institutions devote significant resources to their research budgets — R1 institutions have a minimum annual research budget of $5 million. And that number goes up for many top research universities.

In 2020, more than 20 R1 schools spent $1 billion or more on research and development. And Johns Hopkins topped $3 billion.

What does that mean for students? These schools have the most up-to-date research facilities. Students and faculty at R1 schools benefit from the best research tools in the field.

Strong Reputation

It's no surprise that research universities rank at the top of "best college" lists. R1 institutions have strong reputations for academic excellence.

And those reputations extend beyond applied research fields to include theoretical disciplines, scholarship-based fields, and more. Research universities have a long track record of contributing to society, both through innovations and by educating students.

Preparation for Grad School

Attending a research university for a bachelor's degree can set graduates up for success later on — from getting into top grad schools to becoming leaders in the field.

Consider the list of undergraduate alma maters for Nobel Prize winners — of the top seven schools, five are R1 institutions.

Should You Go to a Research University?

Is a research university the right fit for you? Here are some questions to ask when choosing a school for your undergraduate studies.

  • Are you unsure about your major? Research universities typically offer dozens or even hundreds of majors. If you aren't sure whether to major in biology or education, a research university will give you the most options.
  • Do you want to major in STEM? If you're considering a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics degree, a research university might be the best fit. But you don't need to attend a large R1 institution to major in STEM. In fact, STEM majors thrive in liberal arts colleges, too.
  • Are you planning to go to grad school? When it comes to grad school admissions, your undergraduate institution matters. And research universities bring a strong reputation for academic quality. Attending an R1 school and getting letters of recommendation from top faculty in the field can help your chances of getting into grad school.
  • Do you want to attend a big school? If you always pictured yourself in large lecture halls, a research university might be a good fit. While not all research universities are large — there are just over 5,000 undergrads at Princeton University, for example — R1 universities typically offer a big college experience.

Reasons to Go to a Research University

Who should attend a research university? An R1 school might not be the best fit for every student. Some students prefer a liberal arts college with smaller class sizes. However, a research university might be the right fit for some students' goals.

Undergrads interested in research-heavy majors should consider an R1 school. Attending a research university can also benefit undergrads who plan to earn a graduate degree and those undecided about their majors. Finally, the strong reputation of research universities benefits students in diverse fields.

At the graduate level, research universities offer the best preparation for academic careers and non-academic jobs. They have more resources for grad students and distinguished faculty who can connect graduates with job opportunities.

Because research universities are among the most prestigious colleges, many offer selective admissions. When considering a research university, check the academic profile of recently admitted classes and the admission rate. And consider visiting a research university to see what an innovative campus can offer students.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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