Though there are thousands of college and universities in the U.S., not all serve as research institutions. In addition to providing quality educations, these schools focus additional effort on solving the world's problems through innovative research. Students who see themselves doing work that requires research -- whether in accounting or zoology -- can benefit significantly from attending an institution that emphasizes this side of academia. Most individuals assume that research opportunities only occur for students pursuing master's or doctoral programs, but many schools also allow undergraduates to take part in meaningful research under faculty supervision.

Because research schools often contribute inventions and breakthroughs to society, they enjoy greater renown than institution focused only on, for example, teaching. This creates name recognition for recent graduates. In the following guide, interested learners can review the Best Colleges ranking of top research institutions in the U.S. to learn what makes each school stand out.

What Are The Best Research Universities?

Sort By
Rank School Location Description Toggle

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD

As the self-proclaimed oldest research institution in the nation, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has contributed countless discoveries, inventions, and developments over its more than 140 years of active research. Some of the things we can thank JHU for include water purification, genetic engineering, saccharine, CPR, Dramamine, Mercurochrome, rubber surgical gloves, and a procedure that can repair infant heart defects. The institution also authenticated the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the National Science Foundation, JHU spends more in research and development than any other college or university in the nation; in 2016, this number totaled $2.431 billion -- more than $1 billion more than its closest competitor. The university maintains the distinction of pouring the most money into R&D for 38 years in a row. Recent research projects span topics such as eradicating dengue, understanding why fewer new stars are being made, and how to ascertain the functional age of cells.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, MA

This private research institution in Cambridge focuses on biology, economics, engineering, linguistics, management, and the physical sciences. Some of the discoveries from MIT include understanding the genetic basis of cancer, cryptology, flight recorders, and radar. Though research opportunities typically go to those pursuing graduate degrees, MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program allows more than 85% of all undergrads to participate in faculty-lead research programs. Aside from ongoing research taking place in all 30 academic departments, the school operates a significant number of labs and centers devoted to research. The school also maintains partnerships with collaborating institutions. According to National Science Foundation data, MIT spent nearly $950 million on research in 2016 alone and continues to expand its research and development expenditures each year.


Stanford University

Stanford, CA

From its home base in California, Stanford University spends more than $1.6 billion per academic year on furthering interdisciplinary research across its 18 institutes. To aid researchers in their work, the 20 campus-based libraries contain more than 9.5 million physical and digital volumes. Aside from departmental research, the school maintains nearly 20 laboratories, research centers, and institutes dedicated to solving the world's problems. Some of the advancements to come out of Stanford in its more than 100 years of history include synthesizing DNA materials, transgenic organisms, lasers, Google, and contributions to radar development. The U.S. Department of Energy maintains the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on campus, and alumnus Herbert Hoover founded the Hoover Institution at the school to research topics surrounding domestic and international diplomacy. Other standout research groups include the Stanford Woods Institute, the Humanities Center, Stanford Bio-X, and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

Operating as a private, Ivy League research institution in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania is responsible for some of the greatest research advancements in the modern era. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education lists UPenn as an R1 school, meaning it maintains the highest research activity. Advancements made by researchers at UPenn include the creation of the first electronic computer, the first grammatical spellcheck, dialysis machines, rubella and hepatitis C vaccinations, cognitive therapy, discovering Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and developing retin-A -- a medication that treats acne. All told, the university put nearly $1.3 billion toward research and development during 2016 -- an increase of more than $400 million from 2015. In addition to a thriving Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships, the institution also plays home to a number of research symposiums. These include the Fall Research Expo, the Quaker Days Research Conference, Research and Fellowships Week, and a series of undergraduate research journals.


University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor, MI

Functioning as part of the University of Michigan state system, the Ann Arbor campus continually distinguishes itself by going above and beyond in research endeavors. During the 2017 fiscal year, the school earmarked $1.5 billion for research expenditures. During that same time, 444 new invention reports were submitted. At the Ann Arbor campus alone, more than 2.8 million square feet of lab space exist for both research and teaching. The bulk of research activity takes place in the 19 departments and colleges housed around campus. Particular areas of research at this time include mobility, biosciences, data science, and sustainability, but the school has distinguished itself in many areas since being founded in 1817. Specific accomplishments include synthesizing tetraphenylmethane, founding the study of radical chemistry, early work in developing antihistamines, proving that cancer can be hereditary, developing the electrocardiogram, and demonstrating the world's first 3D hologram -- among many others.


Harvard University

Cambridge, MA

Harvard University maintains the distinction of being the oldest college in the U.S. Research activities in each of the school's departments function at a high level alongside the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study and more than 100 campus-based and international research centers. In addition to student and faculty research, visiting researchers and post-doctoral fellows frequently come to Harvard to perform their most important work. A few examples of research accomplishments include the determination of atomic weights, developing the first iron lung, creating the IBM Mark I computer, and starting EdX online learning. Aside from research groups organized directly by the school, Harvard maintains a number of affiliations with hospitals and research institutions where students can participate as visiting researchers. Prospective degree seekers wanting to keep up with the school's research interests can follow Harvard Research on Twitter.


University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

Since being established in 1890, the University of Chicago in the leafy Hyde Park neighborhood continues to distinguish itself as a leading research institution -- in both the U.S. and the rest of the world. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching ranks UChicago as an institute with the highest research activity, and the school allocated more than $420 million to research and development in 2016. With interests spanning from Middle Eastern studies to energy and marine biology, the institution runs more than 150 research centers and institutes just on the main campus. Some of the areas where UChicago continues to distinguish itself include pioneering the field of sociology, developing hormonal cancer treatment, discovering black holes, identifying additional species of dinosaurs, and mapping the atomic structure of electricity. Students, faculty, and staff have collectively received 97 Nobel Prizes during the university's history.


University of Washington

Seattle, WA

Based in a city known for research and innovation, Seattle's University of Washington ranks as one of the best research institutes in the nation. Current researchers at the school maintain seven Nobel Prizes amongst them, and the Office of Research has received 5,820 awards for distinguished work from organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and MacArthur Fellowship. During the 2017 Fiscal Year, the school spent $1.35 billion in sponsored research grants and contracts. Recent research projects receiving national and international attention include immobilizing single subatomic particles, advancements in bone marrow transplants, the discovery of phosphorylation, cell cycle regulators, and investigations into odorant receptors and organization protocols within the olfactory system. Amongst the nearly 300 research centers on campus, UW maintains 20 National Institutes of Health Research Cores and Centers of Excellence. Other standout institutes focus on Parkinson's Disease, 21st century youth literacy, cybersecurity, AIDS research, and poverty.


Duke University

Durham, NC

Duke University operates as a private research institution in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill research triangle. The school began in 1938 as a religious institution, but now enjoys international recognition for its academics and research. The institution maintains a diverse research portfolio with groundbreaking scholarship, including the development of the ion trap technique, the discovery of helium-3 superfluidity, advancements in quantum electronics, creating the first 3D ultrasound technology, developing engineered blood vessels, mapping the final human chromosome and completing the Human Genome Project, and developing a promising AIDS vaccine. The school receives specific praise for its concentrated work in areas related to oncology, economics, public policy, chemistry, medicine, and biomedical engineering. Most recently, a breakthrough in imaging made it possible to view previously unreadable historic texts.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, NC

As the flagship location for the University of North Carolina, the Chapel Hill campus oversees an annual research budget of $1.05 billion -- the 11th largest budget of any U.S.-based research institution. Of this funding, the National Institute of Health awards a large amount to further research in areas like medicine and wellbeing. According to a 2017 study, UNC Chapel Hill is the 15th most cited university in the world, meaning that scholars regularly use UNC's research as proof of advancements. The school is also first in the U.S. for federal funding related to social and behavioral sciences. Some of the research advancements claimed by UNC Chapel Hill include designing the Bunsen burner, identifying calcium carbide, encouraging the development of gerontology, and developing the partial thromboplastin time test -- a diagnostic exam used to detect issues with blood clots.


Cornell University

Ithaca, NY

Recognized as one of the Ivy League research institutions, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York serves approximately 24,000 undergraduate and graduate learners engaged in cutting edge research. In addition to ranking first in the state for research expenditures, the National Science Foundation ranked Cornell 13th in the nation. During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the institution spent $985.5 million funding projects. Specific areas of interest include medicine, genetics, molecular and cell biology, technology, agriculture, and visual/performing arts. Notable research to come out of or receive funding by Cornell include the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, crash dummy testing, advancements in nuclear physics, synchrotron radiation, and high-energy physics. Aside from campus-based labs and research centers, the school also maintains partnerships with numerous universities and research institutions throughout the world. As of 2017, Cornell's largest funding sources include the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the National Science Foundation.


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Madison, WI

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education oversees all the research done both on-campus and with institutional partners. As one of the less than three dozen sea grant institutions in the U.S., UW-Madison focuses on research related to conservation. Other significant research accomplishments include successfully isolating human embryonic stem cells, furthering work on internal combustion engines, and advancing the study of dangerous viruses. Research expenditures exceed $1 billion annually and go towards funding 19 research offices housed on-campus and further afield. According to the latest figures supplied by the university, UW-Madison ranks 6th in the nation in terms of research volume, with ample opportunities available for learners at each academic level.


Vanderbilt University

Nashville, TN

Vanderbilt University's hometown of Nashville, Tennessee is a growing metropolis that houses one of the best private research universities in the nation. Research at Vandy is divided into 10 schools and 68 labs and centers, providing students and faculty with a an array of research areas. A quick review of the research centers and institutes highlights research into topics such as bone biology, clinical toxicology, intelligent mechatronics, democratic institutions, politics and society, digital humanities, French studies, and tuberculosis. In 2016, Vandy ranked 31st in terms of research expenditures, with a total of $641 million going towards a variety of projects. A significant portion of this funding comes from the National Institutes of Health; as of 2018, the school maintains the largest academic center devoted to studying the effects of radiation in the world.


University of California-San Francisco

San Francisco, CA

Unlike other colleges in this ranking which participate in a wide variety of research interests, the University of California at San Francisco focuses entirely on health sciences and biomedical pursuits. Even though the school focuses on a smaller number of research areas, that does not equate to a lack of funding. In fact, The National Science Foundation ranked UCSF fourth in the nation for research expenditures. During the 2016 fiscal year, the institution spent nearly $1.3 billion. Some of the breakthrough advancements brought to the world by UCSF students and faculty include AIDS treatment, sickle cell anemia prenatal testing, first synthesized human growth hormone, development of recombinant DNA methods, discovery of oncogenes, and catheter ablation therapy. The institution serves as home to five winners of the Nobel Prize and as the largest public recipient of National Institutes of Health research funding.


Northwestern University

Evanston, IL

In addition to the main campus in Evanston, Illinois, this private research institution maintains additional locations in Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching lists Northwestern as a school with very high research activity. In addition to departmental research initiatives, the school serves as home to 90 school-based research centers and more than 50 additional university research institutes and centers. During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the university sponsored research in excess of $676.5 million. Northwestern provides a range of baccalaureate opportunities through the Office of Undergraduate Research, while graduate learners can partner with faculty and research scholars to participate in meaningful exploration. The Office of Research hosts regular speakers, workshops, and seminars to share ongoing research with both the university community and others interested in progress.


Texas A & M University-College Station

College Station, TX

Operating as the flagship location for Texas A&M University, the College Station campus serves nearly 70,000 learners through academic and research programs. Research activity at TAMUCS focuses primarily on science and technology, and the school maintains numerous partnerships with state agencies. The institution plays home to more than 130 research centers and institutes focused on topics such as telecommunications, approximation theory, community health, geospatial science, and heritage conservation. Most of these facilities reside at the two main research campuses: Research Valley and Research Park. All told, the school maintains more than three million square feet of space dedicated solely to research. During the 2016 fiscal year, the National Science Foundation ranked TAMUCS 16th in overall research expenditures. The school spent $892.7 million in a 12-month span.


University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Minneapolis, MN

Through its 19 colleges and schools, and its research institutes and centers, the University of Minnesota's flagship Twin Cities campuses support research in areas such as the sciences, engineering, medicine, arts, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and law. Many of the school's faculty have won MacArthur Fellowships, Nobel Prizes, and Guggenheim Fellowships. The school spent $940 million on research in the previous fiscal year and continues to expand that budget each year. UM Twin Cities' research and innovations include developing puffed rice, engineering the pacemaker, artificial intelligence, developing airplane black boxes, creating the effective AIDS drug Ziagen, developing 30 varieties of apples, and transplanting the first pancreas. Significant research opportunities occur at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the school ensures that a high percentage of students enjoy the opportunity to go abroad for research.


Yale University

New Haven, CT

One of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world, it should come as no surprise that Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut is well-regarded in research and scholarship. Notable researchers and inventors who either attended or taught at Yale include Eli Whitney, Samuel F.B. Morse, Marie Curie, and Grace Hopper. All told, the institution focuses on 20 different areas of research, from biomedical technology to research computing. During 2016, this private Ivy League school ranked 18th in terms of research expenditures, putting forth $881.8 million for various ongoing and new projects. In addition to research conducted by faculty members and current students, the university also welcomes more than 1,200 postdoctoral fellows from the U.S. and abroad to contribute to work being done at the school.


Rutgers University-New Brunswick

New Brunswick, NJ

As the oldest member of the Rutgers University system, the New Brunswick campus has provided degrees since 1766. Today, the school serves more than 40,000 learners at all academic levels and maintains 19 distinct academic departments. For those focused on research aspirations, more than 175 institutes and centers reside on campus and nearby. A sampling of topics shows the diversity in research: AIDS policy, alcohol studies, deep-sea ecology and biotechnology, gambling, human genetics, and translational medicine. Many faculty members leading research projects receive national attention for their work, and 37 serve as members of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, or the National Academy of Sciences. In 2017 alone, the campus spent $682 million in research and development. Interested learners can also find specific information on undergraduate and graduate research opportunities.


The Ohio State University

Columbus, OH

Ohio State University in Columbus serves more than 60,000 degree seekers each year. A member of the Big Ten Conference, OSU is part of a university consortium that collectively spent more than $10 billion in research during the 2014-2015 academic year. In 2016, the school spent more than $818 million on research. The school maintains a large number of research centers and institutes, with particular interest in areas of international security, aeronautics, polar research, and electroscience. In particular, OSU works on climate change, cancer, renewable energy, and sustainable water supplies. Interested learners can get a better sense of what to expect at Ohio State by reviewing some of the ongoing student research and capstone projects highlighted on the research website.


New York University

New York, NY

For nearly 200 years, New York University has provided excellent educations for students from across the world who want to attend a top research institution while living in the Big Apple. The school serves approximately 60,000 learners at all levels, with significant time and resources invested into the research arm of the school. The institution spent nearly $810 million on research and development in 2016 and continues to increase that number each year. The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and offices from three sections of the armed forces all supply research grants to the school -- as does Boeing, Google, and Microsoft. The school maintains more than 100 research labs, centers, and institutions across the city who study topics such as biomolecular medicine, urban management, geriatric nursing, American-Jewish history, cosmology, and atmospheric ocean science.


Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta, GA

Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology is a public research institute that functions as part of the University of Georgia System. In addition to the main campus, the school maintains an additional campus in Georgia alongside international locations in China, France, Ireland, and Singapore. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies Georgia Tech as maintaining a high level of research activity, with funding coming from both government agencies and private corporations. In addition to significant graduate research opportunities, the school also created the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to encourage learners pursuing bachelor's degrees to find a meaningful project. The school spent more than $790 million on research during the 2016 fiscal year, with emphasis areas including aerospace, cybersecurity, electromagnetism, and electro-optical systems. The school also maintains satellite research facilities in Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., among others.


California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, CA

Research at California Institute of Technology -- a private school located in Pasadena -- is divided into nine distinct areas: astronomy and planetary science, behavior and economics, computing, earthquake science and engineering, energy and the environment, engineering and technology, human health, humanities, and neuroscience. Under each umbrella, the school maintains specific laboratories, analysis centers, observatories, and imaging centers to help students and research faculty perform research. Caltech focuses primarily on STEM-related research, with significant funding coming from the National Science Foundation. Aside from research labs located on campus, the institute operates satellite spaces throughout California and in Louisiana and Washington. The school highly encourages undergraduate research through Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships; approximately four out of five students working towards bachelor's degrees engage in some type of research. In 2016, the school spent $371 million on research and development.


University of Southern California

Los Angeles, CA

As the oldest private research institution in the state, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has worked to further research innovations since 1880. In addition to research carried out by faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students, the university also supports nearly 400 postdoctoral fellows. The school serves as home to notable faculty, including members of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Nearly 80 institutes, laboratories, and research centers support innovation in a wide range of areas. Some of these include health policy and economics, neurodegenerative diseases, Japanese religions and culture, elder mistreatment, and body computing. Aside from gaining access to world-class facilities, the university also provides the Center for Excellence in Research, an innovative program that connects students with faculty mentors.


Emory University

Atlanta, GA

Although Emory University maintains a central home base in Atlanta, Georgia, faculty, students, and postdoctoral researchers can take advantage of innovative opportunities across the globe. In addition to maintaining partnerships with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs, this private research institution also works with several international partners to enable students to travel and complete meaningful research. Some of the standout centers include systems imaging, translational social neuroscience, digital scholarship, drug development, and quantitative theories and methods. In 2017 alone, Emory spent $628 million in research development -- nearly $585 million of which went toward health sciences research. The National Institutes of Health operates as the largest funder, contributing nearly $308 million in 2017. Undergraduate research plays a big role in institutional goals, with more than 50% of all bachelor's students working with faculty to complete a research assignment. Students can review specific opportunities through the Undergraduate Research Office.