What Is a Research University, Part II


Most students who hope to earn a bachelor’s degree will enroll at a university. The schools that students dream of attending are almost always research universities.

It’s far less common for teenagers to end up at a college.

I find that reality unfortunate because a college can often provide a better education for undergraduates than a research university. And it’s for that simple reason that both of my children ended up earning bachelor’s degrees at colleges. In fact, neither one of them even applied to a university.

What’s wrong with universities for undergrads? It’s the deeply ingrained institutional priorities of these universities that trouble me.

Here is my first post devoted to research universities:

What Is a Research University, Part I

Universities and Research

The No. 1 priority of research universities is…….RESEARCH!Open book copy

Within academia, it’s not a secret that this heavy reliance on research is often detrimental to undergraduates because of what routinely gets short shrift – undergraduate education.

The ability to teach undergrads is rarely valued at research universities and even the rare professors who would like to be superb teachers do not receive the training to do so.

Unlike elementary and high school teachers, doctoral students usually do not receive formal training in how to teach. PhD programs are focused almost entirely on creating researchers.

Academic departments rarely require any training for its professors. Surveys of 3,500 faculty members at the University of Florida system, for instance, found that 80% had never taken even one class on how to teach. When it comes to teaching, many professors are rank amateurs.

Universities and Graduate Students

The teaching that professors do conduct is primarily focused on mentoring graduate students on how to become excellent researchers. Graduate students, who may be attracted to academia because of the prospects of teaching undergraduates, often come to the realization that focusing on teaching skills is a dead end. If their goal is to land a tenure-track position at a university, grad students need to devote their time to publishing papers.

ucsdGraduates students who are initially excited about the prospect of teaching can lose that enthusiasm fairly quickly. I was talking to a doctoral candidate at University of California, San Diego, recently who said that she and many other doctoral students that she knows at the research university were initially excited about the prospects of teaching, but they became disillusioned and discouraged when the professors in their respective departments not only deemphasized it but in some cases even bragged about being poor teachers.

You can become a professor and eventually earn tenure without possessing teaching skills or even the desire to teach. In fact, it can hurt a graduate student’s chances of receiving a doctorate and support from their academic advisors if they express an interest in teaching.

Here is a 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that illustrates the plight that doctoral students can face if they let slip  that they would rather focus on becoming excellent teachers while they are graduate school rather than excellent researchers:

How I Came Out of the Liberal-Arts Closet

Realities of Undergrads at a Research University

Who teaches undergrads

At research universities, undergraduates are the third priority after professor research and educating the next crop of PhDs. While producing graduate students is labor intensive, it’s much cheaper to teach undergrads because they can be largely lecture halltaught in lecture halls.

Undergraduates foot much of the tab for expensive graduate programs and for star professors, including Nobel Prize winners, who rarely teach. In what has been characterized among higher-ed insiders as a bait and switch, smart undergrads are attracted to research universities by the presence of great scholars, but they routinely find they have little-to-no access to them.

To recruit or retain professors, research universities will sometimes promise to cut their course load. Rebecca Blank, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, acknowledged the practice recently in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. According to the article, Blank said that 15% of her professors last year received outside job offers, and as chancellor, she bids against those offers in part by cutting the course loads of researchers so they will stay.

“I am an economist,” Blank said in the interview. “I live in a market.”

At research universities, graduate students and adjunct professors do the majority of teaching. Adjuncts are often part-timers who receive low pay and often no benefits and are not on the tenure track. The percentage of adjuncts now exceeds tenured professors in the nation’s universities.

At some universities even undergraduates are hired to teach other undergrads! A scathing 2013 report written by a group representing thousands of grad students throughout the 10 University of California campuses, noted that undergrads were increasingly leading sections and discussions instead of graduate students.

For more than four decades, according to the Harvard Political Review, Harvard undergrads have led sections, graded assignments and held office hours. You can read about this phenomenon here:

Harvard Undergrads are Teaching Each other and Harvard Doesn’t Want to Talk About It

High-stakes testing

lecture hallWhen there are hundreds of students in many classes, grading assignments and tests can be overwhelming for the graduate students who typically do the scoring. Consequently, there can be few opportunities to earn a top grade. There may be just a mid-term and a final. Having a bad day or studying the wrong material can be disastrous for a student who may have only two chances to ace a class.

When a student is in smaller classes, which are standard at colleges, there can be more opportunity to show what they know. A student may receive a grade based on papers, class participation, extra-credit opportunities, classroom presentation, quizzes and tests. The stakes for any one grading opportunity aren’t as high. It’s also much easier to ask a professor a question when he or she is standing next to you rather than 20 rows away in a lecture hall.

Missing Mentors

There is a price to pay for tenured professors being largely removed from the academic lives of undergraduates.

Studies have repeatedly shown that undergraduates have a much better experience in college if they have professors who get them excited about learning and if they find mentors. A mentor can help an undergrad not only navigate what can be a bewildering path through college, but can also be incredibly helpful in advising students on graduate and professional school opportunities, as well as providing much-needed recommendations for advanced degrees.

A friend of mine, who is a tenured professor at a prestigious research university, tells me that he gets requests from undergrads hoping to go to medical school who need a recommendation from a science professor. My friend will tell these seniors that he can’t help them because he doesn’t know who they are. After all, he teaches undergrads in lecture halls.

Sometimes the students persist and ask if my friend would get a cup of coffee or lunch to get to know them well enough to write a recommendation. The professor always turns them down. My friend’s son, by the way, graduated from a liberal arts college and he has marveled at the personal attention that his son received from his professors.

Academic Freedom and Learning

Students can also be collateral damage thanks to academia’s embrace of academic freedom, which is a phenomenon that isn’t just endconfined to research universities. Here is how Kevin Carey, a highly respected higher-ed commentator, frequent New York Times contributor and the author of a new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, describe the clash of this professor privileges and student learning:

Under the theory of “academic freedom,” which was originally advanced to shield faculty scholarship and speech from politics and administrative caprice, professors were given wide latitude to design courses however they liked. They did so largely in isolation, with little outside help or supervision. Their teaching was never evaluated by experts. Nobody checked to see how much their student learned compared to other students in similar course.

This reality led to a system where teachers taught what they wanted rather than the institution examining what students should know and designing appropriate courses. The number of schools that require all students to take a core curriculum like Columbia University, University of Chicago, Reed College and St. John’s College have dwindled dramatically.

Shielded by academic freedom, professors also routinely ignore the findings of psychology and cognitive science on how students learn. While some professors have explored methods to improve their teaching, at this point they remain outliers.

Why Families Haven’t Noticed

Families have not appreciated this bias against undergraduates at universities because there has been little to compare it against. The vast majority of Americans with degrees have graduated from universities as opposed to colleges. At colleges the emphasis is on teaching undergraduates and there usually are no graduates students. Only two or three percent of students earning bachelor’s degrees attend liberal arts colleges like my children.

Undergrads Teaching Undergrads!

harvard yardOver the years, there have been some efforts to provide undergrads with a better academic experience, but they have often fizzled. In the first edition of my book, The College Solution, I wrote about one such effort at Harvard that made the front page of The New York Times back in 2007. Here is the article:

Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research

The article discussed how a group of professors had banded together to explore how undergraduate education might be improved at the Ivy League school. A professor quoted in the article lamented that some undergraduates, after spending four years at Harvard, didn’t know a single faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation.

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.”

The efforts by the band of Harvard profs ultimately failed. Many years later, Harvard has embarked once again on exploring ways to help undergraduates.

Research universities occasionally do explore ways to improve teaching, but it’s usually a modest effort. Here is a link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Carolyn Thomas, the dean for undergraduate education at the University of California, Davis, wrote in March 2015 about the need for universities to pay more attention to teaching quality.

Don’t Divide Teaching and Research

Bottom Line:

I’m not suggesting that undergrads should avoid all research universities, but I think students who choose this option need to be aware of what the mission of these institutions are.

Most students pick universities because they are familiar names. Or they are also attracted to “school spirit,” which usually translates into Division I football and basketball. Or for other superficial reasons that have nothing to do with getting an education.

I would urge families to simply be smarter about their educational choices.

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  1. Mary
    I thought your post was very interesting. But I think there’s more to the story.

    I had secretly hoped my daughter would choose Virginia Tech. This is not only because of their outstanding undergraduate research program, but also because they struck me as having a remarkable commitment to social and community service. This is an aspect of the college experience that is seldom weighed, but should be.

    Your comments about William and Mary are spot on. Its really amazing that this school is not one of the top ranked universities in the nation. Its educational experience (and pedigree) is as least as good as Harvard’s.

    The problem is that people don’t really know why they make their college decisions. They want a four year degree, but don’t balance cost and benefit. They want a research university but can’t access the programs. They want a top research university and definitely can’t access those programs. They pay too much, expect too little and end up making choices based on the worst possible criteria.

    Incidentally, my kid chose George Mason University (another hidden gem inside the Virginia system). Her reasons: fantastic programs in computer engineering, global studies and unique access to the DC technology corridor. We’re not sure if they even have a football team.

  2. This article is so important, and I wish more people would read it and actually believe it. I cannot tell you how many families in the state of Virginia automatically think that the University of Virginia (UVA) and Virginia Tech (VT), Virginia’s two main research power houses, are the best options for their bright students, mostly because they have greater brand recognition — including quite a bit of negative press; however, you know the saying “bad publicity is better than no publicity.”

    A young woman intern in my office from VT told us that the year after the VT mass shooting, their applicant pool went up by about 6,000. It also goes up years following when their football team receives bowl bids, as if that has anything to do with academic quality.

    UVA’s applicant pool increased by several thousand after all the publicity from several incidents, including the murder of Hannah Graham, the violent arrest of a black student near grounds, and the Rolling Stone Article about UVA’s supposed rape culture centered around the fraternity system (the specific allegation of rape covered in that article was discounted, but the raucous nature of UVA’s fraternities was notorious before that article came out).

    All of the drama aside, I think there are other reasons I would steer kids to other colleges in the state. The main reason is what you are saying in this article — that their heavy emphasis on graduate students and research takes away from the undergraduate experience.

    Having grown up in Virginia and having had many friends attend both of these schools and now knowing many friends of my own children who attend these schools, I can attest to the fact that to be happy at these types of schools, one must be very self motivated, fairly outgoing, strongly proactive, and very self directed. It is very difficult to get support when problems arise, and there is little guidance provided.

    Students who aren’t characterized by these traits often feel lost and don’t bond well with the school. Many stick it out anyway, though, because they prize the name brand that will be on their diplomas, despite the fact that the schools are not living up to their expectations and are not fulfilling their needs. My daughter applied to and was accepted at both VT and JMU, and she chose JMU.

    Many people ask me why, because some feel that VT is a step above JMU. When I ask them why they think that, the response is almost always, “well, because more people have heard of VT.”

    This was not true a generation ago, and it wasn’t true until the success of VT’s football program and the 2007 mass shooting there. I explain to them that my daughter chose JMU due to the fact that they are far more undergraduate focused, with almost all classes taught by full professors. She was a little shy, so liked the emphasis at JMU on an intentional freshman focused “First Year Experience,” where the university houses all freshmen in freshmen-only halls and dorms, where there is an in-depth orientation program at the beginning of the school year during which freshmen have the campus to themselves (and can opt for a bonding adventure program with a small group earlier in the summer) and that helps students bond with the school, find their way around, and make friends easily; and hall RAs who are trained specifically in creating a welcoming atmosphere with many planned activities and hall bonding sessions.

    Even though the school is fairly large, it still maintains that undergraduate focus and emphasis on teaching undergraduates, due to having a very small graduate school. Her friends at VT and UVA had little of this, their orientations were only two days and focused mostly on logistical procedures, and at VT the halls are mixed with freshmen and students from other class years who have no interest in dealing with freshmen, thus interfere with the bonding process.

    VT has responded to criticism of its minimal orientation for freshmen by offering a “summer, freshmen pre-semester” for entering freshmen, but it can only accommodate a very small percentage of students and is not the norm. There are a few programs at both UVA and VT for select freshmen to have a more targeted first year experience, but that is only for the very top applicants, one must apply specifically for them, and they are highly competitive with only a small percentage of freshmen/first years being accepted. Again — they are not the norm.

    William and Mary is an academically outstanding state supported college in Virginia that focuses heavily on undergraduates, which used to be considered higher on the academic and admissions totem pole than UVA a generation ago, but UVA is now overtaking it simply because it has more name recognition in sports and sensational press reporting. William and Mary has an unparalleled first year experience for its freshmen, and like JMU, has a thorough, bonding, orientation program where freshmen come to campus before upper class students. Both schools also have excellent opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research, which is only an option for the very top, small percentage of students at UVA and VT.

    University of Mary Washington and Christopher Newport University are two additional academically excellent, state supported colleges in Virginia where undergraduates are the main focus. Virginia has all these wonderful and unique options for undergraduate focused state supported education, yet you will still see top students pining to get in to UVA and VT, despite the fact that they will get more attention and better preparation for graduate school at one of these other schools. This is, of course, my humble opinion, but it is based on years of observation and anecdotal evidence.

    I have many very good friends who went to VT and UVA and work with many bright alumni of those institutions (and I attended one of them myself!), so it’s not to criticize their graduates or claim they aren’t high quality — just to point out that it’s not a given, just because they have greater name recognition and a larger size than some of Virginia’s other state supported options, that they are automatically the best options out there.

    1. Hi Mary,

      Excellent observations Mary!

      Thank you so much for contributing to the discussion about research universities. I have been lucky to have you share your wisdom in the past regarding the slavish worship of research universities by people who know little about the schools except their brand names!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Great post, Lynn

    After teaching at a liberal arts college, 2 regional public schools, and a research university, I would say these days, the lines between colleges and universities are really blurred and the experience can be really bad everywhere you go. Even the schools that are not research schools put so much emphasis on research that students suffer. Although I don’t think the situation is as black and white, the reality is that unless you go to a small school, your child will be taught in a big lecture hall (most likely by a graduate student) and have almost no interaction with professor. However, there is a silver lining even at a school like ASU (isn’t that the largest school in the country now?) Things change in upper division specialized programs almost everywhere. For example, right now I teach in the largest Cal State School (42k students) but my undergraduate class is 24 students because this is a capstone course. This would never happen if I was teaching an introductory class everyone in the college of business has to take. The bottom line is that parents really need to put the effort into finding the best college for their kid’s needs and sometimes, getting information form insiders is the best way. Thanks for writing this as it would certainly help some of them to make a better decision.

  4. My daughter wanted a supportive collaborative atmosphere that we thought could only be found at a small liberal arts college. She got the financial offers that she needed at every school where she applied. But in the end she could not resist the academic opportunities in her dept at the local public university which is strong in her field & has an honors program.

    She sat in on similar classes so that she could compare them across schools. She talked with students & professors & administrators. She attended events. She knew going in that she would have to work at making connections with professors & mentors.

    One program at the university that surprised her were faculty seminars, some just for freshmen, that were 1 credit, pass/fail, taught by top professors in their fields, to 12 or fewer students. She has taken a lot of these in everything from statistics, to philosophy to storytelling.

    She also goes to office hours regularly and stays after class, just to have further conversations with the prof. She has had professors meet with her anytime she’s asked, when she had a concern or wanted advice. She writes thank you notes when someone goes out of their way, like the prof that stayed in the labs with his students til midnight while they struggled with his assignment. She has successfully emailed unknown professors to ask if she can join their class on visits to the art museum or opera.

    She asked a professor that she had not met before, if she could work in his research lab during the summer after freshman year because she was excited about his project. She had a great experience & he designed her project so that it would be a basis for other internship & research applications. Later that year, when he got additional grants he offered her a research position for however many hours she wanted.

    She also found that her college (engineering) has an academic support center with professors & administrators who are there to make sure students don’t fall through the cracks in such a big school. They offer tutoring, advising, counseling, community building, mentoring, & they give individual support to students.

    There have been some professors & lecturers that she was not excited about, but she has always been able to find someone to get the supports she wants. Another prof or TA. She has built really good relationships with many of her profs. and feels known, balancing out the frustrating bureaucracy of big state u.

    One thing that was important to her was having women professors in her field of computer science. That was actually difficult at the smaller schools. Many had none at all. At her university, women profs have reached out to her and keep up with her to offer encouragement & advice.

    It is not exactly the college experience she was looking for, but it has been a good one nonetheless. She is happy with her choice.

  5. Lynn
    you are absolutely correct: what matters is accessibility to expertise. I seriously wonder about your friend who turns down a cup of coffee from an undergraduate – and I seriously wonder about the effect this would have on my own kid had it happened to her.
    parents should contrast this with something like Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate Computer Science Research Program (). I count northward of sixty projects. Here are some of the more endearing invites:
    “Implement cool web technology with and surrounding LibX.”
    “I have several projects “shovel-ready” and I am willing to entertain ideas (including for mobile applications) you may have.

    1. I didn’t get to add my favorites:
      “Ever wonder what do Bioformaticians do? Here is your opportunity to find out!”
      “Stop by during office hours for a chat.”
      Maybe your tenured friend needs to rethink his priorities.

  6. Hi Lynn,
    I’m glad to hear you criticism of undergraduates’ teaching undergraduates. What I’ve found, though, is that this practice is even MORE prevalent at small liberal arts colleges! I first learned about this practice while touring Bowdoin College. I thought I had heard wrong until they confirmed it. Then I heard about it some more at Bates College. Many liberal arts colleges use undergrads to teach sections and hold discussion groups. Unfortunately it’s not only the universities who have such opportunities.

  7. My older sibling and a handful of other acquaintances attended my state’s flagship university, an R-1 level. A good percent went onto to careers that aren’t “esoteric” in nature, so finance, accounting, engineering etc. My brother’s friend majored in international relations and went to attend Columbia Law. She now makes about $160K which is about the starting salary for her position. A high school acquaintance of mine majored in sociology and marketing – went to law school at his alma mater. He’s now working at a law firm. Another went to non-ranked law school in state and is a clerk. Another majored in business and is now working for Sears Holding. Nothing fancy, but it’s work and it pays enough for her lifestyle.

    Let’s move to my family. My brother, as I mentioned above, just has his bachelors in an industry where the big earners have MBA’s. He’s making what an MBA holder would earn once hired at a Big 4 accounting firm. Two of my first cousins attended research universities. One university was ranked in the Top 25 while the other ranked in the middling 70s. The one that attended the Top 25 public university entered a doctoral program for cognitive science but left after getting an offer from a major tech company in Silicon Valley. The one that attended the middling 70s school was hired by a company based on a passed internship he did with them. A year later he was laid off because of downsizing and made a career change by learning enough coding in six months after his layoff. He’s now a junior web developer.

    Let go on to my high school’s class valedictorian. He also attended the same university as the people in the first paragraph. Since his AP courses were allowed to count towards credit, he graduated within three years. He later attended medical school (he was a TA and did research, so getting recommendations didn’t seem to be a problem) and now is an intern at John Hopkins.

    Are there large lectures? Yes. Are the students treated like cattle? Yes. Can the students get to know the professors if they are driven? Certainly. There is no hand holding at research universities. This setting isn’t for everyone. You can get that close relationships needed to write recs (astounding ones) for law school, medical school, social work and Phd programs. Is it harder? Yes, but it’s not possible.

    If the student wants a certain future that is mostly catered towards the liberal arts, it’s absolutely possible. Research universities do not get much respect in terms of undergraduate education, though they should, because the gulf between the kind is a lot smaller than what’s initially believed.

    1. * Is it harder? Yes, but it’s not possible.

      I meant “not impossible.”

      It’s late. That’s my excuse for poor grammar & spelling.

    2. And are there other things besides honors colleges to look for when your student is almost certainly going to a research university?

      1. Hi Janet,

        I think what is critically important is to research individual academic departments. If your child, for instance, wants to major in business, he/she needs to see what kind of experience undergrads get as business majors.

        Students should not fall in love with a research university’s brand name and expect that a school with a “great” reputation will be uniformly excellent. This just doesn’t happen. Here is a great piece by Kevin Carey about this issue:


        A teenager should talk to students in the department he/she is interested in, talk to professors (if they aren’t cooperative that’s a bad sign), pour over the department’s academic website, find out what students do after they graduate. Does the department keep track? What are the undergrad research and internship opportunities? That should give you a head start.

        You should do this, by the way, whether you are looking at a research university, master’s level university or a college. Unfortunately, lots of teenagers and their parents pick schools based on their reputation without doing any meaningful research.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy