What Are Tier 1 Schools and Are They Right for Your Student?

Tier One Schools

What Are Tier 1 Schools and Are They Right for Your Student?

Published February 8, 2018 | Last Updated April 30th, 2024 at 09:31 am

Tier One Schools

Many families want to make sure that their student goes to a highly-regarded school, to get the best education available.

As a result, they often look for “Tier 1” schools when a child is planning to apply for college.

But what, exactly, makes a school “Tier 1?”

What’s the Difference Between a Tier 1 and Tier 2 College?

It turns out that there’s no official definition of a Tier 1 (or 2 or 3) school.

Generally, these distinctions are created by ranking organizations, and even then there’s little agreement.

It’s easy to assume that the top level of a college ranking is “Tier 1,” but how far down do you go? The top 25? Top 50? 

There’s actually no consensus. The US News College Rankings for National Universities, for instance, states that all ranked schools in a category are “Tier 1.”

All unranked schools are “Tier 2.”

Of course, we all know there are more than two tiers of education. And it’s obvious that a top 10 school in the US News rankings is more desirable than numbers 150 – 200

Joni Hersch, a Vanderbilt University economics and law professor, wrote a report about this in 2019 and differentiated the schools as thus: “Tier 1 consists of major private research institutions like Yale, Johns Hopkins and New York University.

Tier 2 schools are selective private liberal arts colleges like Middlebury and Vassar.

Tier 3 are major public research universities, among them most of the University of California system.”

Other organizations that publish rankings considered authoritative include Association of American Universities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Center for Measuring University Performance.

Some of these groups rank based on research grants, selective admission, and faculty awards. 

Even these are not universal, because each has its own list of top schools. If you get ten people in a room, you get ten different lists of top 50 schools.

What Is Tier 1 for YOUR Student?

The good news is that it may not matter what the consensus is and who says what about school ranks.

Generally, the best school for your student is a very individual fit.

Only your student and your family know what you’re really looking for.

A high volume of research grants may not be what your student is looking for.

Here are some things you might look for instead:

  • Graduation rate
  • Job placement rate in your student’s chosen program
  • Quality of faculty-student relationships, which are key for networking
  • Strength of student and alumni networks, which can help with future opportunities

The truth is that at some extremely large research universities, a student is simply a number on a page.

They have a hard time creating strong connections with faculty, and as a result they graduate with a piece of paper but no real network. 

That can be devastating for their career options beyond the entry level.

Today’s world is just as much about “who you know” as it ever was, and having strong connections and a great network will open many doors.

If your child decides to go to a graduate school or PhD program, having great relationships with faculty who can recommend them is essential. It’s great to go to a selective school.

But it’s better to go to a school where your student can build relationships with influential faculty and peers.

Only you and your student can decide what schools are the most desirable. (And a second- or third-choice school may eventually work out better than a first-choice one).

It may be the traditional private heavyweights.

Or, it may be a smaller school with a very strong reputation in the field your student prefers.

Or, it may be a public university that will give your child a strong foundation without costing them too much in debt.

Regardless, a student who is in the right place for THEM, will succeed and flourish.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

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