FAQ: What is a Tier 1 University

Postit FAQ-What is a Tier 1 school? (Common list of Tier 1 Universities for 2022 is at the end of the post.) What is a tier 1 university turns out to be a very interesting question. I never really looked into it and just assumed that Tier 1 was a school ranked in the top 50 of US News College Rankings for National Universities. Tiers 2, 3, and 4 were the next group of 50 institutions. Everything not ranked in the top 200 were considered unranked schools. I do remember at one point something about US News deciding not to do Tier 2, that those schools would be part of a larger Tier 1, or something like that.

The reason why I’m actually using fuzzy impressions is because there really isn’t any official definition of Tier 1. I think that it is often used by those in the college search process to refer to the top 50 schools ranked by US News and therefore, the most desirable or prestigious to attend.

Download Listing of all Tier 1 Universities

US News Tier 1 University Definition

Currently, there are no “tier” definitions as part of the US News Best College Rankings methodology. They simply do not use the word. The last time I can find an actual reference is from 2016. At that time according to their FAQs

U.S. News publishes the numerical ranks of approximately the top 75 percent of schools in each of the categories. The remaining schools are placed in the bottom, or second, tier based on their overall score in their category. Schools in the second tier are labeled as Rank Not Published and listed alphabetically on usnews.com.

Wasn’t that nice of them? Now the top 75% of schools in any category can be called Tier 1 schools. While the term “tier” has completely disappeared from the explanation of their methodology and rankings, they continue to only rank the top three-fourths of schools by the school type category. Apparently, they have the number ranking for the bottom 25% but choose not to display it for those schools.

For anyone interested in rankings, this should give you a reason to stop and think. Why are the rankings good enough to distinguish between the first and second place schools but not between the last and second to last place schools. Or maybe they just don’t want to hurt their feelings? After all, you can’t sort the list from lowest ranking to highest but you can from highest to lowest.

However, the bottom 25% are still ranked in categories such as Social Mobility or Best X Undergraduate Program. Given the number of ties in the various categories, maybe US News Best Rankings would be better off sticking with just labeling schools by tiers. But then how many people would buy their rankings guide if you couldn’t argue over the order of the top 10 schools?

Other Definitions for Tier 1 Universities

The meaning is furthered muddied when you considered the Texas initiative to increase the number of Tier 1 universities in the state.  According to the Texas Legislature, in 2009 Texas had three Tier 1 universities in the state while California had nine. These are schools that “are expected to bring in at least $100 million per year in research grants, plus have selective admissions and high-quality faculty.”

But it might also include the 63 United States schools that are members of the American Association of Universities which is by invitation only. According to its membership policy, it is “an association of leading comprehensive research universities distinguished by the breadth and quality of their programs of research and graduate education.” Maybe its focus on research and graduate education explains why it includes four institutions that didn’t quite make it into the top 100 of US News National University rankings. It’s worth noting that one recently departing member charged that “the membership appears to favor schools with “medical schools and associated medical research funding.”

The University of Houston, one of the institutions trying to improve its status to Tier 1, states that:

there are three organizations that are generally accepted as national arbiters of an institution’s rank as a Tier One institution. They are the Association of American Universities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Center for Measuring University Performance, which issues Top American Research University (TARU) reports. Recognition by any of these three is taken as an indication of Tier One status.

The Carnegie Foundation definition would increase the number of Tier 1 Universities to 131, including the University of Houston. The Top American Research Universities lists 73 institutions that have at least one measure in the top 50. The measures include data on research, private support, faculty awards, graduate training, and undergraduate test scores.

All of the current possible definitions of Tier 1 institutions are focused on the research aspect of universities, not the undergraduate education. Yet just because US News is no longer using the term “Tier 1” doesn’t prevent anyone else from applying it to the top 50 schools in their rankings. However, keep in mind, US News Rankings has another national ranking of schools which are focused on the undergraduate experience, Liberal Arts Colleges. How are you going to decide which number one rankings is the correct one?

Ultimately, without any official Tier 1 definition, it seems to me that it’s a matter of perception. The truth is that even with a definition, it’s still a matter of perception.  This means that it’s up to you to decide if the perception is based on your values and needs or of someone else’s.

Tier 1 Universities

Download Listing of all Tier 1 Universities

Name Type State Top American Research University Assoc of American Universities Members US News Best National University Rankings 2022 % Admitted
Princeton University Private NJ 24 y 1 6
Columbia University in the City of New York Private NY 1 y 2 7
Harvard University Private MA 1 y 2 5
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Private MA 1 y 2 7
Yale University Private CT 5 y 5 7
Stanford University Private CA 1 y 6 5
University of Chicago Private IL 18 y 6 7
University of Pennsylvania Private PA 5 y 8 9
California Institute of Technology Private CA 32 y 9 7
Duke University Private NC 5 y 9 8
Johns Hopkins University Private MD 5 y 9 11
Northwestern University Private IL 10 y 9 9
Dartmouth College Private NH 32 y 13 9
Brown University Private RI 41 y 14 8
Vanderbilt University Private TN 26 y 14 12
Washington University in St Louis Private MO 10 y 14 16
Cornell University Private NY 18 y 17 11
Rice University Private TX 32 y 17 11
University of Notre Dame Private IN 26 19 19
University of California-Los Angeles Public CA 10 y 20 14
Emory University Private GA 32 y 21 19
University of California-Berkeley Public CA 14 y 22 17
Georgetown University Private DC 58 23 17
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Public MI 5 y 23 26
Carnegie Mellon University Private PA 41 y 25 17
University of Virginia-Main Campus Public VA 41 y 25 23
University of Southern California Private CA 14 y 27 16
New York University Private NY 18 y 28 21
Tufts University Private MA 61 y 28 16
University of California-Santa Barbara Public CA 41 y 28 37
University of Florida Public FL 32 y 28 31
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Public NC 18 y 28 25
Wake Forest University Private NC 28 32
University of California-San Diego Public CA 10 y 34 37
University of Rochester Private NY 54 y 34 35
Boston College Private MA y 36 26
University of California-Irvine Public CA 54 y 36 30
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus Public GA 26 y 38 21
The University of Texas at Austin Public TX 24 y 38 32
University of California-Davis Public CA 32 y 38 46
William & Mary Public VA 38 42
Boston University Private MA 49 42 20
Brandeis University Private MA y 42 33
Case Western Reserve University Private OH 58 y 42 30
Tulane University of Louisiana Private LA 61 y 42 11
University of Wisconsin-Madison Public WI 14 y 42 57
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Public IL y 47 63
University of Georgia Public GA 61 48 48
Lehigh University Private PA 49 50
Northeastern University Private MA 61 49 20
Ohio State University-Main Campus Public OH 14 y 49 68
Pepperdine University Private CA 49 42
Purdue University-Main Campus Public IN 32 y 49 67
Villanova University Private PA 49 31
Florida State University Public FL 61 55 32
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Private NY 61 55 57
University of Miami Private FL 61 55 33
University of Maryland-College Park Public MD 41 y 59 51
University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus Public PA 26 y 59 64
University of Washington-Seattle Campus Public WA 10 y 59 56
Pennsylvania State University-University Park Public PA 26 y 63
Rutgers University-New Brunswick Public NJ 41 y 63 67
University of Connecticut Public CT 54 63 56
Indiana University-Bloomington Public IN 52 y 68 80
Texas A & M University-College Station Public TX 26 y 68 63
University of Massachusetts-Amherst Public MA 61 68 65
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Public MN 14 y 68 70
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Public VA 54 75 66
North Carolina State University at Raleigh Public NC 41 79 46
Michigan State University Public MI 41 y 83 76
University of Iowa Public IA 61 y 83 84
Stony Brook University Public NY y 93 49
University at Buffalo Public NY 61 y 93 67
University of Colorado Boulder Public CO 52 y 99 84
University of Oregon Public OR 61 y 99 84
University of Utah Public UT 51 y 99 79
University of Arizona Public AZ 49 y 103 85
University of California-Santa Cruz Public CA y 103 65
University of Illinois Chicago Public IL 32 103 73
University of South Florida Public FL 61 103 49
Arizona State University Campus Public AZ 32 117 88
University of South Carolina-Columbia Public SC 61 117 68
Iowa State University Public IA 61 122 88
University of Kansas Public KS 61 y 122 91
University of Missouri-Columbia Public MO 61 y 122 82
University of Alabama at Birmingham Public AL 58 148 81
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Public CO 54 227 66


FAQ: What is a Tier 1 University