What is Niche?

Niche is a research site that blends community reviews with hard data to help people explore what a place is really like. Every year, we help millions of Americans choose a Place to Live, College, or K-12 School

While rankings play an important role in these major life decisions, they’re just a small part. Our rankings help people discover and compare. They’re a springboard to more in-depth research on Niche’s core product - authentic, comprehensive profiles of schools and places.

What makes our 2016 College Rankings unique?

We’ve been helping students and parents make the big decision about where to go to college for more than 13 years. This year, nearly half of all college-bound high school seniors will register on Niche to make their college decision.  We take that responsibility seriously and strive to reflect the entire college experience, from freshman year to life after college.  

The Niche 2016 Best Colleges ranking is a comprehensive assessment of more than 1,100 U.S. colleges based on millions of statistics and student reviews. Unlike other college rankings, Niche rankings go beyond basic statistics and strive to capture the student and alumni realities of each college. To reflect the realities of the college experience, our Best Colleges ranking incorporates millions of student reviews and key statistics about the academics, students, campus, local area, professors, dorms, food, and athletics.

New for 2016, our Best Colleges ranking also incorporates a new Best Value Colleges ranking as a factor to reflect the experience of alumni  in the "real world." The Best Value Colleges ranking assesses the long-term impact a college has on its students in terms of costs, debt, career advancement, earnings, and student reviews on how prepared they feel for life after college. This ranking was developed as part of a recent Department of Education College Scorecard initiative, where Niche was invited to be an early beta user of new outcomes-focused datasets. Read more about Niche’s involvement in the initiative.

 To see how each college’s ranking changed, view 2016 vs 2015 College Rankings.  

Why do we grade and rank colleges?

While our rankings show the Top 100 colleges for each ranking, 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. In each ranking, it’s important to focus on more than just the number. Given the high number of colleges included in our rankings, there may not be a large gap between the 15th- and 30th-ranked colleges in a given ranking. In reality, both are exceptional colleges when compared to the total population of all colleges nationwide. Grades can often provide greater context because they are assigned based on how each college performs compared to all other colleges included in the ranking. Grades are determined using the process defined below.

How do we compute our rankings?

To compute our rankings and grades, we go through a series of steps. These steps are in place to ensure that our rankings are statistically sound and offer the most amount of guidance to those looking to make a college choice. In general, the process used to compute each ranking was as follows:

  1. First, we carefully selected each ranking’s factors 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 school’s final score and that each school’s final score was a fair representation of the school’s performance. Weights were carefully determined by analyzing:
    • How different weights impacted the distribution of ranked schools;
    • 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 each 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 at least 50 percent of the factors (by weight) but lacked one or more of the required factors were not included in the numerical ranking but were assigned a grade according to the process outlined in step 7 below.
    • Colleges that had all of the required factors and 100 or more full-time undergraduate students were deemed eligible for both a grade and a numerical ranking.
  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

Grades are assigned based on how each school performs compared to all other schools included in the ranking by using the following distribution of grades and z-scores. While most rankings generally follow this normal distribution, there are slight variances across each ranking, so the actual counts and distribution may vary.

GradeFinal Z-ScoreFrequencyCumulative Frequency
(Score at least)
A+ 1.96 ≤  z 2.5% 2.5%
A 1.28 ≤  z < 1.96 7.5% 10%
A- 0.84 ≤  z < 1.28 10% 20%
B+ 0.44 ≤  z < 0.84 13% 33%
B 0.00 ≤  z < 0.44 17% 50%
B- -0.44 ≤  z < 0 17% 67%
C+ -0.84 ≤  z < -0.44 13% 80%
C -1.28 ≤  z < -0.84 10% 90%
C- -1.96 ≤  z < -1.28 7.5% 97.5%
D+ -2.25 ≤  z < -1.96 1.3% 98.8%
D -2.50 ≤  z < -2.25 0.6% 99.4%
D- -2.50 > z 0.6% 100%

Note that we intentionally did not assign a grade below D- to any schools in any rankings.