Niche Best Overall Ranking Methodology

The Best Overall ranking provides a comprehensive assessment of the overall experience at traditional four-year colleges and universities in the United States. It uses more than 50 statistics sourced from various government and public data sets, Niche's own proprietary data, and 11,857,508 opinion-based survey responses across 20 topics from 294,497 current students and recent alumni.

A high ranking in Overall Experience generally indicates that:

  • Students are very happy with their experience at their college in all aspects of student life—academics, social life, campus resources, peer students, etc.;
  • The college is an exceptional academic institution in terms of professors, students, research, and resources for learning;
  • The college attracts a diverse set of intelligent, high-achieving students and faculty and fosters a community that is open to all viewpoints, backgrounds, and personal convictions;
  • The college is a healthy environment for students, with low crime, manageable stress, and high retention and graduation rates;
  • The college is affordable to students of all types with a low percentage of alumni in student loan default.

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 1,570 colleges receiving a grade, with 892 of those also receiving a numerical ranking.

Factors Considered

Many of the factors below are themselves made up of several key factors. In total, more than 50 key statistics, as well as student surveys across 20 topics, are incorporated into this ranking. Of the dozens of factors that go into our Best Overall ranking, either directly (as a factor below) or indirectly (as a factor of a factor), no one statistical factor accounts for more than 7 percent of the overall ranking. SAT/ACT scores have the highest impact, accounting for 6.3 percent of the Best Overall ranking—these account for 18 percent of the Academics score, which is weighted at 35 percent in the Best Overall ranking.

Academics Grade Niche Academics grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding academics on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 35%
Student Survey Responses Student opinions about the quality of the overall experience at the college they currently or recently attend(ed). Includes 121,626 opinions about overall experience from 25,090 unique students. Minimum 10 unique students required at each college. Note: A total of 11,857,508 opinions from 294,497 unique students were used across all of the factors in this table. Niche users 12%
Campus Quality Grade Niche Campus Quality grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding facilities on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 8%
Loan Default Rate Loan default rate of students who graduated three years prior who have not deferred. U.S. Department of Education 6%
Athletics Grade Niche Athletics grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding athletics on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 5%
Average Net Price Average cost after financial aid for students receiving grant or scholarship aid. U.S. Department of Education 5%
Diversity Grade Niche Diversity grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding diversity on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 5%
Local Area Grade Niche Local Area grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding the local area around campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 5%
Endowment per Full-Time Student Dollar amount of the college's endowment per total full-time fall enrollment (undergraduate and graduate). U.S. Department of Education 4%
Guys & Girls Grade Niche Guys & Girls grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding students on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 4%
Health & Safety Grade Niche Health & Safety grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding health and safety services on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 4%
Party Scene Grade Niche Party Scene grade, which incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding nightlife on campus. Read the methodology. Niche grade 4%
Private Gifts/Grants per Full-Time Student Revenue from private donors (not part of endowment) per total full-time fall enrollment (undergraduate and graduate). 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, as 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 1,500 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 82 5.22%
A 1.28 ≤ z < 1.96 75 4.77%
A- 0.84 ≤ z < 1.28 89 5.67%
B+ 0.44 ≤ z < 0.84 150 9.55%
B 0.00 ≤ z < 0.44 277 17.63%
B- -0.44 ≤ z < 0 363 23.11%
C+ -0.84 ≤ z < -0.44 269 17.12%
C -1.28 ≤ z < -0.84 173 11.01%
C- -1.96 ≤ z < -1.28 84 5.35%
D+ -2.25 ≤ z < -1.96 5 0.32%
D -2.50 ≤ z < -2.25 3 0.19%
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, 1,571 received a grade, with 892 of those also receiving a numerical ranking. The top ranked college was Stanford University, which ranked highly in nearly every factor analyzed and had a final score that was nearly five standard deviations above the mean college, an exceptionally high number. The second ranked college, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also had an exceptionally high score, ranking just below Stanford University. Harvard and Yale also scored extremely well, more than four standard deviations above the mean college. Of particular note is that all of the top five colleges, which also included Rice University, had relatively low Average Net Prices and low Loan Default Rates when compared to other peer elite institutions.

It's important to note that the Best Overall ranking achieved real parity across all college types, a testament to our all-encompassing approach. The Top 25 include leading research institutions (MIT, No. 2), liberal arts colleges (Bowdoin College, No. 13), Ivy League colleges (Harvard University, No. 3), large public colleges (University of Texas - Austin, No. 17), religious colleges (University of Notre Dame, No.16), powerhouse athletic colleges (University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, No. 20), and colleges that don't fit any one category but excel across the board (Rice University, No. 5).

Several colleges scored extremely well but did not qualify for the numerical ranking due to insufficient data or an undergraduate enrollment below the minimum 1,500 students. Thirteen colleges received an A+ grade for Best Overall but no numerical ranking, including California Institute of Technology, Claremont McKenna College, Cooper Union, The Curtis Institute of Music, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Harvey Mudd College, Haverford College, The Juilliard School, Scripps College, Soka University of America, and United States Naval Academy. With full data, these colleges may have ranked in the top 100.

Here’s a breakdown of how the Top 25 colleges performed across each factor:

Niche 2015 Top 25 Best Overall Colleges

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