What Are College Tiers?
By Thomas Broderick
It’s summer, which means that up-and-coming high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors like you are going on college tours and performing other important work that will increase your chances of college admission success.
As you’re performing research into different schools, I bet you’ve come across the term ‘college tier,’ such as “You should apply to a few second-tier schools in addition to your top choices,” or “Going to a third-tier school is a waste of money.”
In a nutshell, college tiers resemble the tiers in the cereal aisle. On the top shelf are the name-brand cereals, and with that name brand comes a high price. On the middle shelf are the lesser-known cereals and the generic, store-brand varieties. Finally, on the bottom shelf are low-priced bulk cereals. You know the ones – they come in big plastic bags.
In this article, we’ll take a trip down the “college aisle” to examine the different tiers. While there we’ll discuss why a college ends up in a particular tier and if tiers say anything about the quality of education students receive.
The Tiers: A Breakdown
First off, there are four college tiers. Let’s learn a little about each one:
- Tier 1: Private schools that invest as much (or more) in research than educating undergraduates
- Cost to Attend: $40,000-$50,000/year
- Tier 2: Private liberal arts colleges that do not focus on research
- Cost to Attend: $30,000-$40,000/year
- Tier 3: Major public research universities
- Cost to Attend: $10,000-$30,000/year
- Tier 4: Every other college including each state’s community college system
- Cost to Attend: $0-$30,000/year
Something interesting to note is that before the mid-1980s, the concept of college tiers didn’t exist. What was just a term used by statisticians became a successful marketing ploy that big-name colleges use to build their brands.
So if tiers are mostly about marketing, will they impact your life during and after college?
What Tiers Mean for You
If you have plans to earn a master’s or doctoral degree, then college tiers matter when you’re applying to graduate school. In a nutshell, graduate programs at tier 1 and 2 schools want applicants who earned their bachelor’s degrees from tier 1 and 2 schools. The reasons for this are two-fold. First of all, when reviewing applicants that graduated from tier 1 and 2 schools, admission counselors know that the quality of education these applicants received was on par with or exceeded that of the programs at their university. Secondly, it looks better for them if they accept more candidates from these schools. But if you’re not planning to go beyond your bachelor’s, then it doesn’t matter where you receive your degree.
No matter your final level of education, where you earned your degree quickly falls in significance compared to your on-the-job performance after graduation. Apply this line of thinking to the colleges and universities on your short list by considering the questions below:
Tiers 1 & 2
- Will attending mean that I go into debt?
- If the answer is ‘yes,’ you may want to reconsider.
- Despite the school’s big name and reputation, does it offer academic programs that interest me?
- This is also a vital tier 3 and 4 question.
Tiers 3 & 4
- Does this program provide a good education?
- Research what former students are saying about their experiences. Although the college landscape has improved in the last few years, there are still many ‘colleges’ that do a poor job educating students or rip them off.
- Am I interested in starting my degree at one of these schools before transferring to a tier 1 or 2 school?
- Many undergraduates choose this route to save money on their educations.
If you aspire to a career in academia, then yes, college tiers matter a lot. If other career paths interest you, college tiers take a backseat to other factors such as your ability to pay. So don’t let advertising alone reel you in. Do your research, and apply to the colleges and universities where you can get the best bang for your buck.