Choosing where to go to college is one of the biggest decisions students and their families will make. While many factors are at play–from tuition to school size and location–certainly one of the most important is the academic reputation of the schools and programs that correspond with a student’s interests.
Many of the most prestigious universities have become so through their emphasis on research, which is considered the pinnacle of academic achievement. Large research universities often make important new discoveries and invent technologies that affect our lives. As a result, they attract the most distinguished professors and enjoy exceptional resources. And while they may emphasize faculty publishing and PhD programs, many also offer outstanding opportunities for undergraduate students.
As part of our mission to empower students to turn their passions into projects, Polygence can help families make that decision more confidently by introducing students to potential college majors and careers before they apply. Our mentors come from many different backgrounds, and many of them have completed advanced degrees at the top research universities in the world.
Since the list of top research universities is constantly changing, it can be helpful to understand the methodology behind the rankings. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education identifies research universities through some basic criteria: institutions that award more than 20 doctoral degrees in research fields and report more than $5 million in research expenditures are considered “doctoral universities.” They are sorted into R1 schools with “Very high research activity,” and R2 schools with “high research activity.” R1 status is conferred to only about 4% of all universities in the U.S.
When the Carnegie Classification released an updated list released in 2021, it identified 9 schools that jumped from the R2 (high research) to the R1 (very high research) category. For students interested in being exposed to the highest levels of research as undergraduates, these 9 schools provide excellent opportunities.
1. Baylor University
Baylor is a private research university in Waco, Texas, with 15,191 undergraduate and 5,435 graduate students. It is one of the oldest schools in the American West and has distinguished itself through devotion to undergraduate teaching. In 2021, US News and World Report ranked Baylor tied 76th for best national university in the US, and tied 31st for “Best Undergraduate Teaching,” and tied 25th for “Most Innovative.” Its highest ranked programs are Entrepreneurship, Business, Physical Therapy and Health Care Management, and includes distinct colleges for Arts & Sciences, an Honors College, Business, Health and Human Science, and Engineering and Computer Science, among others. Baylor also features a beautiful campus, Division 1 Athletics, and robust Greek life. All in all, it’s a top university that provides a great value and opportunity to undergraduates.
2. Kent State University
Kent State is a public research university in Kent, Ohio, and includes seven regional campuses across the Northeast part of the state. Founded in 1910, it is well known for its student activism in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the main campus at Kent enrolls more than 25,000 students across 300 degree programs, with 250 baccalaureate and 23 doctoral programs. Some of its top programs are in nursing, business, history, aeronautics, journalism and architecture, and has 12 distinct colleges to support them, including College of Aeronautics and Engineering, Architecture & Environmental Design, Business Administration, and Communication and Information.
3. North Dakota State University
Officially named The North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, NDSU is a public land-grant university in Fargo, North Dakota. With more than 13,000 students enrolled across 94 undergraduate majors, 146 degree programs, and 52 doctoral degrees, NDSU labs and Research and Technology Park make significant contributions to the state’s Red River Valley Research Corridor (which includes the neighboring University of North Dakota). NDSU’s areas of research focus include nanotechnology, advanced polymers, microsensors, and agriculture. Its engineering programs also rank in the top 10% of such departments in the US, making it an excellent choice for aspiring engineers who like an urban setting with access to the great outdoors.
4. Old Dominion University
Formerly a location of the College and William & Mary, Old Dominion is now one of the largest universities in Virginia with nearly 25,000 enrolled students. After scaling up its research investments, ODU spent more than $60 million on research and development in 2018, with special funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, as well as the Departments of Energy and Defense. ODU’s location in Norfolk helps facilitate work with these and other government organizations in the greater Hampton Roads maritime area. An exciting new development occurred in October 2022, when the university announced the launch of a devoted School of Cybersecurity, the first of its kind in the country.
5. University of Denver
The University of Denver (DU) is a private university founded in 1864, making it the oldest university in the Rocky Mountain region. The main campus lies five miles south of downtown Denver, while a 720-acre mountain campus sits in Larimer County, about 100 northwest of the city. A notable strength in its research divisions is International Studies, including centers and institutes of public policy; International Security, Diplomacy, law, and journalism; and a strategic center for international futures. With 5,700 undergraduate and 7,200 graduate students, the campus scene includes Greek life and Division I sports.
6. University of Louisiana at Lafayette
UL is a public university in Lafayette, a city of 120,000 about two and half hours west of New Orleans. With nearly 17,000 students, UL is the second largest school in the state after Louisiana State University. In 2020, UL set a record with more than $164 million in research funding, and is the only university in the state with a cooperative Industry/University Research Center with the National Science Foundation. The focus of this work occurs in the Center for Visual and Decision Informatics, which is one of the largest such centers focused on data science, big data analytics, and visual analytics. The Authement College of Sciences also contains laboratories for advanced computer studies, internet computing, robotics and sensors, as well as software research. There are also a host of schools and centers focused on environmental studies, ranging from petroleum optimization and photovoltaics to environmental protection and alternative energies.
7. University of Memphis
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, UofM is a public university with a large student population of 22,000. Of 16,702 undergraduates, 72% receive some form of financial aid. UofM’s research initiatives span a wide range of disciplines, including the FedEx Institute of Technology which supports interdisciplinary research clusters focused on high-impact innovation and new technologies. Clusters include Drones, Robotics, and Navigation Enabled Systems (DRONES), SMARTCities, Biologistics, and Mobile Data 2 Knowledge, which combines computer science, engineering and medicine to develop and implement new wearable medical sensor technologies. The school also has strong undergrad programs in Kinesiology, Exercise Science, Nursing, and Psychology, making them among the most popular majors.
8. University of Texas at San Antonio
With its elevation to R1 status, UT San Antonio becomes one of twenty schools nationally that both performs the highest level of research and is designated a Hispanic-serving institution. With four campuses spread across San Antonio, a city of more than 1.4 million people, the university maintains a suburban setting for its nearly 30,000 undergraduates. It has identified five research pillars for $140 million of annual funding in 2021: Digital Economy, Fundamental Futures (comprising environmental, energy, and infrastructural research), Human Health, Culture & Inclusion (race and ethnic studies, language and literacy, i.a.), and Socio-Economic Transformation (through equity, justice, and entrepreneurship). Since 2013, the school has offered a Facilitated Acceptance to Medical Education (FAME), an accelerated medical degree program that allows accepted high school students to complete their undergrad in three years before matriculating at UT Health-San Antonio.
9. Utah State University
USU is a public, land-grant school in Logan, a city of about 50,000 in a valley next to the Bear River Mountains. With hot summers and cold winters, USU attracts nearly a quarter of its students from out of state, and has a reputation for delivering good value to its students. In fact, it emphasizes the importance of undergraduate research, having founded an Undergraduate Research Program in 1975. Notable research centers are its Space Dynamics Laboratory, Center for High Performance Computing, as well as a number focused on environmental research and education. This includes the Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter outside of Park City, Utah, a 1,200-acre land trust and environmental education center. USU proudly notes its 36 Goldwater Scholars, which supports sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research careers in mathematics, engineering, and the natural sciences.
Note for CollegePlannerPro members: Did you know you can import the list of R1 institutions (updated for 2022) into your CollegePlannerPro account? Head to the Colleges tab and click "Import Preloaded List".