The Top American Research Universities

2020 Annual Report

Past Annual Reports:


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 assess 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.

Many indicators serve this purpose, but most observers know that research matters more than anything else in defining the best institutions.  In its annual reports, The MUP Center 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 The MUP Center 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, The MUP Center provides the number of doctorates awarded and the number of postdoctoral appointments supported; and The MUP Center 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 and in some cases institutional savings 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, The MUP Center gains the opportunity to note historical and emerging strength in private support for research universities.

The MUP Center'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 The MUP Center's classification of universities into groups based upon the nine quality indicators described above. Institutions that have more than $40 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.

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

The raw data used for The MUP Center's 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. To increase the validity and usefulness of these data, The MUP Center, adjusts 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.

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

Comments and suggestions or requests for a printed copies should be sent as an email to The MUP Center. We 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.