When a person refers to a second tier college, he is more than likely, talking about a school's ranking according to "U.S. News and World Report." A second tier college may be ranked between number 51 and number 100 on the list or in the bottom 25 percent, depending on whether the person is referring to the old system or the new system.


"U.S. News and World Report" has been publishing a ranked list of the nation's universities every year since 1983. When the list began it was organized into four tiers, or levels. The 50 universities with the highest ranking were designated "first tier," and the rest of the universities were listed alphabetically within their levels. The whole group of second tier schools were ranked below first tier, the third tier were ranked next, and fourth tier schools had the lowest rankings.


"U.S. News and World Report" no longer lists third and fourth tiers of universities in its ranking system. As of 2010, the list instead ranks the top 75 percent of schools individually, calling them first tier schools, and lists the bottom 25 percent alphabetically, calling them second tier schools. However, many people think of first tier schools by their previous definition, the top 50 on the list, and second tier schools as the second 50 on the list.


"U.S. News and World Report" does not rank different types of colleges and universities against each other. Rather, it divides the nation's schools of higher education into four categories: national universities, regional universities, national liberal arts colleges and regional colleges. Each category is ranked separately, so a person who is only considering schools from one category can see them ranked against one another without the other kinds of schools skewing the list. A second tier college, therefore, is a national liberal arts college or regional college ranked in the bottom 25 percent.


The publication determines its rankings based on a number of variables aimed at pinpointing the school's success rate as an academic institution. These variables include a school's reputation, acceptance rate, student retention rate, graduation rate, faculty-student ratio, faculty resources, finances, alumni donation rate, and comments from college counselors in high schools. They do not include the variety of nonacademic courses a school offers, its financial aid options, its location or subjective factors such as the beauty or mood of the campus.