Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Learning Productivity at Research Universities

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Learning Productivity at Research Universities

Article excerpt


Research universities enjoy the highest status among colleges and universities (Geiger, 1993; Graham & Diamond, 1997; Lipset, 1994; Rosovsky, 1990). These complex organizations perform an array of functions unlike that of any other educational institution, ranging from basic and applied research in virtually every field, graduate and professional training, and baccalaureate education. They attract many gifted students and faculty members, lead the world in great prizes awarded for science, and receive significant external support for their activities (Alpert, 1985; Noll, 1998). They train the vast majority of physicians and PhD recipients as well as about one-third of the baccalaureate degree recipients, even though they comprise only 6% of the baccalaureate degree-granting institutions. In addition, they are citadels of academic culture, where faculty autonomy and academic freedom are deeply rooted and fiercely protected (Rosovsky, 1990). In short, they are the standard to which most other colleges and univ ersities aspire (Geiger, 1986, 1993). For better or worse, many colleges and universities try to emulate certain of their characteristics, such as the entrepreneurial ethos that drives an unflagging search for resources to support their ever expanding array of programs and activities.

Research universities are not without critics, however. Prior to the 1990s most of the criticisms were from inside the academy, focusing on matters related to institutional governance, reward systems, and university goals. In recent years, however, external groups have chastised these universities for their relentless pursuit of research grants and contracts, challenging them to redirect institutional effort to priorities that address compelling public interests, such as undergraduate education (Brooks, 1994; Education Commission of the States, 1995; Kellogg Commission, 1997; The Wingspread Group, 1993). Indeed, the quality of their undergraduate programs was sharply criticized by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998), which characterized the record of RUs in baccalaureate education as "one of inadequacy, even failure" (p. 37). This is because RUs ostensibly feed their undergraduates a steady diet of educationally vapid practices, such as large lecture-dominated l ower-division classes that insure student anonymity and discourage meaningful intellectual engagement, reward systems that favor scholarly productivity over undergraduate teaching and advising, and heavy use of inexperienced graduate student instructors who aspire to emulate the research-oriented careers of their faculty mentors. On the other side, the advocates for research universities argue that undergraduate study at research universities is superior in terms of both educational and economic value (Noll, 1998; Vincow, 1997).

Surprisingly little empirical research is cited by those who criticize the quality of undergraduate education at RUs. For example, the Boyer Commission report contains few references to systematic studies of the undergraduate experience that document poor performance of research university undergraduates compared with students at other types of institutions. If undergraduates at research universities are treated as "second-class citizens" (Boyer Commission, 1998, p. 37) and the quality of their undergraduate education is uniformly substandard, this should be evident by comparing the experiences of research university undergraduates with those of their counterparts attending other institutions.


The purpose of this study is to examine the learning productivity of undergraduates at research universities (RUs). Learning productivity is defined as the combination of student engagement in educationally purposeful activities and the gains they make in a range of desired outcomes of college. The focus is on what students do with institutional resources and what they gain from their experience, not on institutional or faculty productivity measures represented by the number of classes taught and credit hours generated or number of publications and amount of external grants and contracts (Guskin, 1994). …

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