What Is a Research University?

In my last blog post I complained that too many high school students pick schools based primarily on size. And most of these students only want to look at schools that are large.
Here is where I vented: Do You Know the Difference Between A College and University?

What’s more important, I argued, is a school’s mission. Today, I want to explore a bit about what the mission is for large research institutions.

Research Universities

The prime mission of private and state flagship research universities is to generate research and produce graduate students. Schools like Yale, UCLA, MIT, University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas attract professors who enjoy stellar credential in their fields of study.
Undergraduates foot much of the tab for these expensive graduate programs and for star professors who rarely ever teach. While producing graduate students is labor intensive, it’s much cheaper to teach undergrads because they can be taught in large lecture halls.
And guess who ends up interacting with these undergrads the most? Graduate students. Particularly in the sciences, grad students often get their degrees for free and in return they teach undergraduates.
Does this arrangement mean that students who attend large universities, particularly state institutions, will be corralled into large lecture-style classes for four (or more) years? In some cases, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but not in others.
You can learn a great deal about universities by reading a book that I’ve been recommending a lot, The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, which I wrote about in a previous blog post.

Getting Personal Attention at a Research University

How do you get personal attention if you attend a research university?
Pursuing a major that isn’t impacted may also lead to smaller classes. Honor colleges within state universities can be another way to avoid some monster lecture-hall courses for the brightest students.  Here is where you can learn more about honor colleges.
You should also contact faculty at a university — email is probably your best bet — and ask what is the average class size for introductory classes and what is the average class size once you get into your major. You should also ask students who attend the university and/or recently graduated this question. They would have no motivation to buffalo you.
Earlier this year, I met a recent UCLA graduate, who had earned an English degree.  One of the first things that I asked him was how many students were in his English classes. While the young man said his professors were smart, he shared that he had been frustrated because the class sizes were too large. Even his upper-division English classes had at least 100 students in them. Consequently, he never got to know his professors.
The UCLA English major did smile, however, when he recalled the one class that he truly loved. He took a senior English seminar class with just 15 students. He said he worked so hard in that class and thoroughly enjoyed it because of the intimate setting.

Undergraduates at Harvard

You shouldn’t assume that just because you attend a private research university that your professors will be more accessible and you will be able to skip lecture-style learning. I begin my book, The College Solution, with a story that appeared in The New York Times that focused on a movement at Harvard to improve the undergraduate education. Here’s an excerpt:
A curious story appeared in The New York Times one day about the university that’s the academic equivalent of the Yankees.
The article captured the concerns of faculty, who worry that the teaching taking place at Harvard University isn’t meeting the school’s own vaunted standards.  In fact, a professor lamented that some undergraduates, after spending four years at Harvard, don’t know a single faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation. (Here is the link to the story: Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research.)

One student, who was interviewed, suggested that undergraduates ought to know that professors are too focused on research to put much effort into what happens in the classroom.
“You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” a Harvard senior and a Rhodes scholar told the Times’ reporter. “You go to a liberal arts college for teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”
And he had more to say: “I think many people (at Harvard) spend a great deal of their time in large lecture classes, have little direct contact with professors, and are frustrated by poorly trained teaching fellows.”
So what’s the bottom line? If you want an excellent academic fit, you’ll need to do a lot more than look at the size and reputation of a university. Please dig deeper!
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I just wanted to reply in order to share my undergrad experience at a large public research university. I am just about to complete my undergraduate degree in Corporate Finance at Georgia State University in Atlanta, which is on the verge of being the largest school in GA this upcoming year. In my entire undergrad experience I have ALWAYS received personalized attention by the professors, TAs, and SI instructors. What most first year students and parents have to realize is that due to what I consider the flawed structure of United States higher education, undergrad students spend the first two years of their undergrad repeating high school classes. These classes are very basic and require little instruction or expertise. Once you get into your program there are almost no grad students teaching upper level courses. A lot of the grad students working in upper level courses are merely Teacher Assistants that just grade papers, answer emails, post assignments, and proctor tests. In the Robinson College where I took my upper level classes every single one of my professors were world renowned Doctors. Most of my professors had taught at Universities in places such as Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Harvard, Yale, Emory, and GA Tech. Some of this can be contributed to Georgia State working very hard to build their programs as they are such a rapidly growing school with a lot of money, so they were able to shark a lot of professors from highly ranked universities across the world. In conclusion, don’t be worried about grad students teaching basic level courses. It’s how the system works, the students do a great job, it allows for a lot of the technological advances we see today to be possible, and it allows for great opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students alike!

  2. I am a 1st year undergrad at Georgia Tech and I do notice downsides to the large class sizes. It is difficult to know one’s professors for most, but I like to sit in the front row and talk to them after class. TA’s are a valuable resource and without them, you might need to do all your learning with the book. I like the research aspect to my university because undergrads can also participate in some important discoveries with some world-renowned professors. I plan on conducting research with these professors in the nearby future (BME major) so wish me luck! (and good luck to your college bound kids too!)

  3. As a parent sending his first child to a 4 year college, I wish I would have known this information before my daughter chose her school. I would have sent her to a teaching college for undergraduate studies and reserved the research university for grad school. The idea of spening almost a third of my income for my daughter to be taught by grad students makes my blood boil. It is going to be a long 4 years for me and her university. I will try to help educate as many parents as possible in that 4 years so they know that their future student is nothing but a burden to professors that would rather be doing research.

  4. Hi Jessica,
    Congratulations for not letting the size of Georgia Tech slow you down in getting the most out of your undergraduate education. Unfortunately, many students don’t seek out teaching assistants and professors or get get from tutoring services and that’s a shame.
    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Great post on research universities. I am a graduate of Georgia Tech and I spent most of my time in huge lectures so I can definitely relate to that experience. I relied heavily on meeting with TA’s and professors in their office hours and sought help from tutoring services on campus to get extra assistance. The best part of being at a huge research institute was that there were so many resources that were available to us because of research money.