About Niche's College Rankings

We've been covering colleges for more than 12 years. This year, more than 30 percent of all college-bound high school seniors registered on Niche to pick a college. We take that responsibility seriously and believe that choosing a college is about finding the right fit, where the academics, students, and campus experience are all factors. This is why we built a suite of rankings covering every aspect of college life and then used many of those as factors in our very first Best Overall ranking. By incorporating 11,857,508 opinions from 294,497 students and more than 50 statistical factors, we're confident these are the most comprehensive college rankings to date.

What makes our rankings unique?

Our rankings are different, and for good reason. We believe that the quality of a college should be measured, at least in part, by the students who actually go there. They should also be measured by hard data and across a number of key factors so that no one factor dominates a ranking.

We go to great lengths to ensure that our rankings represent a comprehensive assessment of each college. Each Survey Score used in each ranking represents a composite score of several different survey questions pertaining to that topic. Of the dozens of statistical factors that go into our Best Overall ranking, no one factor accounts for more than 7 percent of the overall ranking.* Our rankings strike a real balance, and that's why you'll see colleges of all types in the Top 25 of our Best Overall ranking—leading research institutions, liberal arts colleges, Ivy League colleges, and large public colleges. The top colleges genuinely represent an exceptional overall experience for students.

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 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 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 more than a minimum number of full-time undergraduate students (usually either 1,000 or 1,500) 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 college performs compared to all other colleges 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 colleges in any rankings.

*Note: SAT/ACT scores represent 18 percent of the Academics score, which is weighted at 35 percent in the Best Overall ranking, which totals 6.3 percent.