Research University vs Teaching University: Which is Right for You?

Research University vs Teaching University: Which is Right for You?

Choosing the right college or graduate school may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Whether you’re looking for a great bachelor’s degree program or you’re ready to move on to the graduate level, there are many factors to consider, such as reputation, cost, geography, and size of student body. And then there’s whether the school’s main focus is research or teaching ...

In higher education, it is common to distinguish between research and teaching universities. Research universities put a premium on research; teaching universities put a premium on teaching.

This distinction seems simple and obvious, but it’s not. The aim of this article is to clarify this distinction and thereby help you to decide whether a teaching or research university is best for you.

The terms “research university” and “teaching university” suggest that we are talking only about schools that call themselves “universities.” But that’s not the case. Some schools that call themselves “colleges” are in fact full-fledged research universities (such as Boston College).

At the same time, some schools that call themselves “colleges” and that focus mainly on teaching and undergraduate education will fall under “teaching universities.” Perhaps it would have been easier if the distinction had instead been made between “teaching colleges and universities” on the one hand and “research colleges and universites” on the other. But we’re stuck with “research universities” and “teaching universities.”

One final complication: all research universities place a high value on teaching, and many top four-year liberal arts colleges expect their faculty to be doing high-quality research. So in the distinction between research and teaching universities, research and teaching are not mutually exclusive.

What is a Research University?

A research university is any university that invests heavily in research, and which consequently provides meaningful and extensive opportunities for its students and faculty to participate in research.

Research universities are classified into different tiers based on their quantifiable commitment to research activities. This tiered ranking is called the Carnegie Classification. These classifications are an indication of both prestige and commitment to research among colleges and universities. Carnegie ranks schools on separate tiers based on a quantitative formula that, for doctoral programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus research dollars spent, and for master’s programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus the size of the student body.

Find out more about the Carnegie Classifications.

Research universities may be privately or publicly funded, though all conduct rigorous ongoing fundraising campaigns to support the work of department faculty and staff, as well as provide capital for laboratories, technology and fellowships. The top research universities are typically also those with the largest endowments for research. Because of these endowments, top research universities are often in a position to attract prominent faculty, who are drawn by higher compensation and the ability to conduct original research in their fields.

Contrary to the popular misconception that professors at research universities are either ill-suited for, or uninterested in, teaching, many professors at these elite institutions are passionate about sharing their knowledge and experience with the next generation of scholars and scientists. Some would even argue that professors at research universities, by devoting themselves to pressing the boundaries of knowledge, tend to make better and more engaged teachers than those who merely repeat what has already been learned.

Why are research universities important?

Research universities invest heavily in technology and research facilities, and are therefore often the site of important findings, exciting innovations, and medical breakthroughs. Top research universities around the world have invented the first digital computers, performed the first successful heart/lung transplants, and developed crucial drugs and vaccines.

As a prospective graduate student, you will likely find a greater variety and depth of concentrations at schools designated M1 (master’s programs at top research universities) or R1 (doctoral programs at top research universities). This may be attributed to the presence of more prominent, influential, and specialized faculty and greater financial resources.

Moreover, because top-tier research universities are generously endowed, most have the funding to support costly but potentially groundbreaking research efforts. Many top research universities are large, multi-campus schools with tens of thousands of students. Prospective students, especially at the undergraduate level, must decide whether or not this large campus experience is a good fit before enrolling in a top-tier research university.

The benefits of attending a top-tier M1 or R1 school are consequential. Students who want to do research still as undergraduates will want to attend a research university for their bachelor’s degree. Moreover, M1 or R1 schools carry a a level of intellectual horsepower that truly matters in the pursuit of a master’s or doctoral degree. Prospective graduate students seeking an experience that challenges their minds and emphasizes hands-on research will want to attend an M1/M2 or R1/R2 school.

What is a teaching university? How is a teaching university different from a research university?

A teaching university is a school that emphasizes student instruction, support, and success. Teaching universities, more appropriately called “liberal arts colleges” lack the massive endowments and government grants enjoyed by the top research universities, and therefore focus less on research. Instead, teaching universities focus on the nurture and training of students, striving to give them the opportunities and tools they need to succeed.

Teaching universities often dispense with many of the traditional large campus perks, such as large athletics budgets and extravagant students centers. In their place, teaching universities may offer smaller class sizes, more accessible instructors, and more practical support in areas like writing and exam preparation.

Teaching universities elevate different priorities than research universities. For students and faculty who prefer more direct instruction, engagement, and enrichment, teaching universities often create the space for these personalized experiences. While professors at top research universities must balance their teaching responsibilities alongside research and publishing goals, faculty at teaching universities are encouraged to make direct student instruction their top priority.

The best teaching universities are the top four-year liberal arts colleges. These are schools like Amherst College, Swarthmore College, and Harvey Mudd College. Class sizes at these schools are small and the campus culture encourages tight bonds between professors and students. Professors at these schools will conduct original research. Moreover, their teaching load is low (one or two classes a term), so that they can be productive researchers and still have plenty of time for students.

The worst teaching universities are those where faculty are overworked, teaching too many courses a term, burdened with administrative (and sometimes coaching) duties, and perhaps even expected to do some original research as a means of advancement (such as for being promoted from assistant to associate professor). If you’re going to attend a teaching university, make sure the professors are enthusiastic to be teaching there. If they look tired, harried, and jaded, go elsewhere.

Research University versus Teaching University: Which one is right for you?

Your decision will depend on the kind experience you want out of your undergraduate or graduate program, as well as your subsequent educational and professional goals. As you make your decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What motivates you?
    • If your goals include access to influential faculty, a prestigious grad school, and a specialized research concentration, consider a research university.
    • If you are motivated by personalized instruction, skill development, and practical education, consider a teaching university.
  2. What do you need to succeed?
    • If you need small class sizes and personalized attention from your professors, choose a teaching university.
    • If you are self-directed and don’t mind large class sizes, you could be successful at a research university.
  3. What can you afford?
    • Research universities and teaching universities can be expensive or inexpensive. If you are a resident of a state with a top public research university, then it may be very affordable for you to attend a top-tier research university. On the other hand, you may get scholarship money to attend a teaching university that seems just right for you (where you love the professors and the campus culture). The “sticker price” of a college or university education is often not the real price to you. Try not to let cost determine whether you go to a research or teaching university but instead let the choice depend on what’s best for you.
  4. What factors are important to you?
    • In addition to cost, consider what other factors in your education are important to you. It may geography, campus culture, class size, nationally recognized athletics, etc. Don’t ignore these factors in your decision.
  5. What are your short-term goals?
    • Does a teaching university allow you to take the next intended step in your education or career, or will you need the reputation and research experience only possible through a research university in order to reach that next level?
  6. What are your long-term goals?
    • Will your career ultimately require you to earn an advanced degree at a top-tier research university? Will failing to do so place a ceiling on your job or salary potential?

Use these questions to narrow down what you need and want from your educational experience. Identify your goals, your needs, and your priorities, and then choose the educational experience that best aligns with these variables. Ultimately, you want your decision to feel right and lead to a happy and successful educational experience.

For some helpful background information, take a look at our resource on the Carnegie Classification system.

In your search for a top-tier research university, look at our article on the most influential colleges and universities in the world today.

In your search for a top teaching university, look at our article on the best liberal arts college.