The Top American Research Universities


The Top American Research Universities

Who’s number one? The quintessential American question. We all want to stand first in line, first in the hearts of our country, first in the polls, first in the standings. The pursuit of Number One is surely an important thing in sports, but for universities, being first is not as important as being among the best.

The twenty-first century shows no lessening of interest among researchers, institutions, donors, boards of trustees, and governments in using various university rankings to the performance of higher education institutions. Most national research universities measure themselves on a wide range of dimensions that the institutions believe important for determining improvement and success. At the same time, no single indicator or composite number accurately represents what an individual institution has done, can do, or will do. To improve the quality and productivity of a major national research university, its faculty, students, staff, and supporters need to follow a number of indicators that, taken together, give a reasonable approximation of accomplishment and strength relative to the best universities in the country.

Any number of indicators serve this purpose, but most observers know that research matters more than anything else in defining the best institutions. In this study, TheCenter provides both the total research and development expenditures and the highly-competitive federally sponsored research and development expenditures as indicators of research scale. While the dollars give a good approximation of research activity, it is the faculty who provide the critical resource for university success, and TheCenter reports the number of members of the National Academies among an institution’s faculty along with the number of significant faculty awards earned as indicators of faculty distinction. Students provide a double indicator by reflecting both the externally perceived quality of the institution and providing with their own credentials an important contribution to that quality. For the graduate and research instructional dimension, TheCenter provides the number of doctorates awarded and the number of postdoctoral appointments supported; for the undergraduate quality, TheCenter offers median SAT scores as indicators of student competitiveness.

Both private and public universities live on the resources generated from many sources, but critical to their success are the size of their endowments and annual giving. Endowment reflects the long-term strength of accumulated private support that delivers an income to important purposes every year. Annual giving provides an indicator of the current level of an institution’s private contributions both to current expenses and towards increased endowment. By including both indicators, TheCenter gains the opportunity to note historical and emerging strength in private support for research universities.

TheCenter’s annual report, The Top American Research Universities, offers analysis and data useful for understanding American research university performance. A key feature of this report (available online and in print) is TheCenter’s classification of universities into groups based upon the nine quality indicators described above. Institutions that have more than $20 million in annual federal research expenditures and that rank within the top 25 on at least one of the nine measures fall into our definition of a top research university. In this study, we also present a second group of institutions–those ranking 26-50 on the same nine measures.

TheCenter’s online American Research University Data provides a comprehensive set of data on over 600 institutions. All of the data developed for this project in Excel spreadsheet form because different observers will have different interests or want to construct alternative analyses.

The raw data used for TheCenter Top American Research Universities project, obtained from federal agencies and national organizations, often contain information on single campus institutions, multiple campus institutions, and state university systems, but without clearly identifying the distinctions. This makes national comparisons difficult and unreliable. TheCenter, to increase the validity and usefulness of these data, adjusted the reported figures, when necessary, to ensure that all data represent the strength of a single campus institution. The Data Notes outline the various adjustments.

TheCenter presents a new report on The Top American Research Universities each August. The previous editions of the publication along with data from previous years appear on TheCenter website for reference purposes.

TheCenter staff welcomes comments, suggestions, and of course, the inevitable critique.

The Top American Research Universities is available on-line as indicated at the top of this page. Those interested in a printed copy can request one at the email address below. We will provide printed copies free to educational, research, and other public or non-profit organizations, but we ask that institutions provide the postage either via a FedEx number or other payment mechanism. All requests and comments should be sent in an email to: