While there’s no set definition for a "tier one" university and no specific organization that sets criteria, these universities tend to be research giants with huge endowments and sterling reputations. The University of Texas-San Antonio sets general guidelines calling for at least $100 million a year in research spending, 100 doctorate degrees awarded per year, recognition by major ranking organizations and Nobel laureate or national academy members on the faculty. In short, to make it to the top of tier one you need to be among the best of the biggest.
Eastern United States
For the 2013-14 school year, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was ranked the second best university in the U.S. by U.S News & World Report, the second best in the world by QS Top Universities and the best in the world in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This giant in the world of higher education has 47 Nobel laureates, 32 heads of state and 48 Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also in Cambridge, was ranked no lower than seventh by the three ranking bodies for 2013-14 and was ranked best in the world by QS Top Universities. The school spent $1.4 billion in sponsored research in 2013.
Midwestern United States
The University of Chicago ranks in the top nine schools for U.S. News, QS Top Universities and the Academic Ranking of World Universities for 2013-14. The Midwestern research hub had a whopping $6.67 billion endowment in 2013, up from $3.6 billion in 2004. Northwestern University, also in Chicago, was ranked 12th best in the nation by U.S. News and in the top 30 in the world by the other two services. For the 2012-13 school year Northwestern awarded 565 doctorates. About 200,000 people have graduated from the school in its history.
Southern United States
Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, weighs in as the seventh-best university in the United States according to U.S. News and was no lower than 31st for the other two ranking services. The school granted 3,239 graduate degrees in the 2012-13 school year and had a $6 billion endowment in 2013. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is among U.S. News’ top 20 and the Academic Ranking of World Universities’ top 50 schools. Vanderbilt issued 286 doctorates and 111 M.D. degrees in 2013. The school had 4,102 full-time faculty that year and spent $571.3 million on research.
Western United States
Stanford University ranked fifth best in the U.S. News rankings in 2013-14, seventh best in the world by QS Top Universities and second best in the world by the Academic Ranking of World Universities. In 2014, the school has an $18.7 billion endowment, a $1.35 billion research budget and 22 Nobel laureates involved in the Stanford community as teachers or researchers. California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is in the top 10 for all three ranking services. The school’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been managed by the school for NASA since 1958, and the school’s annual research budget in 2012 was $2 billion.
The University of Toronto ranks among the top 30 universities in the world in 2013, according to QS Top Universities and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. in 2013 the school had students from 150 countries and 530,000 alumni around the world. In 2011-12 the university had a $1.2 billion research budget. McGill University in Montreal was also ranked among the best universities in the world in 2014. The school offers 300 programs of study with more than 250,000 global alumni in 2014. McGill students have received 136 Rhodes scholarships in the school’s history.