Niche Best Academics Ranking Methodology

The Best Academics ranking provides a comprehensive assessment of the quality of the academics at traditional four-year colleges and universities in the United States. It uses data sourced from various government and public data sets, Niche's own proprietary data, and 814,786 opinion-based survey responses about Academics from 70,648 current students and recent alumni.

A high ranking in Academics generally indicates that:

  • Students are very happy with the quality of the education they are receiving;
  • The college employs a diverse faculty of intelligent, engaging professors that are leaders in their fields;
  • The college attracts a diverse set of intelligent, high-achieving students and retains and graduates a high percentage of them.

Colleges Assessed by This Ranking

At the time of calculation, our database contained records for 2,245 public and private, traditional four-year colleges and universities across the United States. For the purposes of this ranking, a "traditional" college is considered to be any accredited, non-profit post-secondary institution that primarily offers four-year degree programs (as opposed to two-year or less). Some colleges were not included in this ranking if: (1) they were not located in one of the 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, or the District of Columbia; (2) they had fewer than 100 full-time undergraduate students; or (3) they had insufficient data (see below). The final ranking results in 1,541 colleges receiving a grade, with 595 of those also receiving a numerical ranking.

Factors Considered

Acceptance Rate Percentage of applicants accepted. U.S. Department of Education 16%
Student Survey Responses Student opinions about the quality of the academics at the college they currently or recently attend(ed). Includes 814,786 reviews and opinions from 70,648 unique students. Minimum 19 unique students required at each college. Niche users 10%
SAT/ACT - 25th Percentile Composite SAT/ACT (normalized to the same scale) of the 25th percentile of enrolled students. U.S. Department of Education 9%
SAT/ACT - 75th Percentile Composite SAT/ACT (normalized to the same scale) of the 75th percentile of enrolled students. U.S. Department of Education 9%
Research Expenditures Total amount of expenditures dedicated to research per full-time student. U.S. Department of Education 8%
Graduation Rate (6-year) Percentage of undergraduate students who graduate within six years. U.S. Department of Education 7%
Professor Salary Index Average professor salary at each college normalized against the median household income of the area where the college is located. U.S. Department of Education,
U.S. Census Bureau
Freshman Retention Rate Percentage of full-time freshman enrollment from the prior year that re-enrolled at the college in the current year. U.S. Department of Education 7%
Admissions Yield Percentage of applicants admitted to the college who enrolled. U.S. Department of Education 7%
Diversity Grade Niche Diversity grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding diversity on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 6%
Faculty National Academy Membership Percentage of full-time faculty who are National Academy members. The Center for Measuring University Performance 5%
Freshman National Merit Scholars Percentage of full-time freshmen who are National Merit/Achievement Scholars. The Center for Measuring University Performance 3%
Faculty Awards Total number of faculty awards per full-time faculty member. The Center for Measuring University Performance 3%
Student-Faculty Ratio Total full-time undergraduate students per full-time undergraduate faculty. U.S. Department of Education 3%

Statistics obtained from the U.S. Department of Education represent the most recent data available, usually from either 2012–2013 or 20132014, as self-reported by the colleges.


The process used to compute this ranking was as follows:

  1. First, we carefully selected the factors listed above to represent a healthy balance between statistical rigor and practical relevance in the ranking.
  2. Next, we evaluated the data for each factor to ensure that it provided value for the ranking. (The factor needed to help distinguish colleges from each other and accurately represent each college.) Because there are different factor types, we processed them differently:
    • Factors built from student-submitted survey responses were individually analyzed to determine a required minimum number of responses. After this, responses were aggregated. We logically have a higher degree of confidence in the aggregated score for colleges with more responses, so a Bayesian method was applied to reflect this confidence.
    • Factors built from factual information were inspected for bad data, including outliers or inaccurate values. Where applicable, this data was either adjusted or completely excluded depending on the specific data.
  3. After each factor was processed, we produced a standardized score (called a z-score) for each factor at each college. This score evaluates distance from the average using standard deviations and allows each college's score to be compared against others in a statistically sound manner.
  4. With clean and comparable data, we then assigned weights for each factor. The goal of the weighting process was to ensure that no one factor could have a dramatic positive or negative impact on a particular college's final score and that each college's final score was a fair representation of the college's performance. Weights were carefully determined by analyzing:
    • How different weights impacted the distribution of ranked colleges;
    • Niche student user preferences and industry research;
    • Each factor's contribution to our intended goal of the ranking described in the introduction above.
  5. After assigning weights, an overall score was calculated for each college by applying the assigned weights to each college's individual factor scores. This overall score was then assigned a new standardized score (again a z-score, as described in step 3). This is the final score for the ranking.
  6. With finalized scores, we then evaluated the completeness of the data for each individual college. Depending on how much data the college had, we might disqualify it from the numerical ranking or from the grading process. Here is how we distinguished these groups using the weights described in step 4:
    • Colleges missing the data for 50 percent or more of the factors (by weight) were completely excluded. They did not qualify for the numerical ranking or a grade. Note: This exclusion occurred before calculation of the final z-score.
    • Colleges that had all of the factors and more than 1,000 full-time undergraduate students were deemed eligible for both a grade and a numerical ranking. Colleges that did not have all of the factors or did not meet enrollment requirements were not included in the numerical ranking and received a grade only.
  7. Lastly, we created a numerical ranking and assigned grades (based on qualifications discussed in step 6). Here is how we produced these values:
    • The numerical ranking was created by ordering each college (when qualified) based on the final z-score discussed in step 5.
    • Grades were determined for each college (when qualified) by taking the ordered z-scores (which generally follow a normal distribution) and then assigning grades according to the process below.

Grading Process for This Ranking

While our ranking shows the Top 100 colleges, we use grades to provide the user some context to those rankings and also to provide insight into colleges that did not make the Top 100. It's important to focus on more than just the number in the ranking. Given the high number of colleges included in this ranking, there may not be a large gap between the 15th and 30th ranked colleges. In reality, both are exceptional colleges when compared to the total population of all colleges nationwide. Grades are assigned based on how each college performs compared to all other colleges included in the ranking by using the following distribution of grades and z-scores:

GradeFinal Z-ScoreCountDistribution
A+ 1.96 ≤  z 81 5.26%
A 1.28 ≤  z < 1.96 52 3.38%
A- 0.84 ≤  z < 1.28 89 5.78%
B+ 0.44 ≤  z < 0.84 138 8.96%
B 0.00 ≤  z < 0.44 281 18.25%
B- -0.44 ≤  z < 0 356 23.12%
C+ -0.84 ≤  z < -0.44 301 19.55%
C -1.28 ≤  z < -0.84 178 11.56%
C- -1.96 ≤  z < -1.28 62 4.03%
D+ -2.25 ≤  z < -1.96 0 0.00%
D -2.50 ≤  z < -2.25 1 0.06%
D- -2.50 > z 1 0.06%

Note that we intentionally did not assign a grade below D- to any colleges.

The Outcome

Of the 2,245 colleges analyzed, 1,541 received a grade, with 595 of those also receiving a numerical ranking. The top ranked college was Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which ranked highest in nearly every factor analyzed and had a final score that was more than five standard deviations above the mean college, an exceptionally high number.

It's important to note that several colleges scored extremely well but did not qualify for the numerical ranking due to insufficient data or an undergraduate enrollment below the minimum 1,000 students. Ten colleges received an A+ grade for Academics but no numerical ranking, including California Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, The Curtis Institute of Music, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Harvey Mudd College, The Juilliard School, Rhode Island School of Design, Scripps College, and United States Coast Guard Academy. With full data, these colleges may have ranked in the top 100.

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