Research universities in the US exist in a “prestige economy,” meaning a field that is stratified both by status and by financial resources. University patenting, which promises revenues through the commodification of research discoveries and also signals status, offers a useful lens through which to understand the prestige economy. Analyses of patenting behavior by US research universities from 1988 to 2004 indicate that public university patenting was predicted by industry funding early in the sample period, but came to be predicted by federal and institutional contributions to research. This suggests that public universities may patent because they are expected to do so – that is, as indicators of status – rather than because patents are associated with revenues. Private universities, by contrast, patent in idiosyncratic ways, with a few very active universities joined by many that engage in little or no patenting. This suggests that privates, unlike their public counterparts, pursue patenting selectively and strategically.