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Check These College Ranking Options: Part 2

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As college rankings continue to captivate those seeking the best fit college for their needs, it's a good time to take a close look at how they might affect your college search. Earlier this week, in Part 1 of my discussion of alternatives to the U.S. News "Best Colleges" rankings, I wrote about the pros and cons of the Forbes "Top Colleges" rankings. Today I'll do the same for the Niche rankings and say a few words about Money's as well.


My source for these ranking comparisons is All the College Ranking Lists You Should Read by Justin Berkman. In Part 1, I cite some of his pluses and minuses for using college rankings to explore higher education possibilities. The main caution being, Avoid making your college decisions based on rankings! Right now, though, with the college visit and tour limitations invoked by the pandemic, rankings likely have a more important role now than they did in past years.

Get to Know These Alternate Lists

Of the rankings he discusses in his article, Berkman spends the most time and detail on Niche. Here's some of his background about Niche:

Niche is a website that has been around since 2002. It provides rankings and reviews for neighborhoods, cities and schools. The Niche college rankings are less well-known than those of U.S. News and Forbes. However, the Niche college rankings list does provide some information and advantages that the other ranking lists don't have.

Niche rankings are based on the overall experience at traditional 4-year colleges and universities. How does Niche determine the "overall experience" at a school? The academics grade counts for 35 percent of a school's ranking. The academics grade is based on objective statistics like acceptance rate, SAT/ACT scores, research expenditures, 6-year graduation rate, professor salary index, admissions yield, freshman retention rate, freshman National Merit Scholars, and faculty awards.

Additionally, Niche incorporates survey responses from students regarding the quality of academics at their college and statistics and survey responses about diversity on campus to determine the academics grade.

Then, 12 percent of the rankings are based on student survey responses about the overall experience at the college they currently or recently attended. Additional factors that influence the rankings are statistics and student survey responses based on campus quality (8%), loan default rate (6%), athletics (5%), average net price (5%), diversity (5%), local area (5%), endowment per full-time student (4%), "guys and girls" (4%), health and safety (4%), party scene (4%), and private gifts/grants per full-time student (3%).

This micro-detailed formulaic approach goes deeper than other rankings sets, spreading the influence of various factors across a wider base of evaluation. For example, there's a value (five percent) placed on "local area." That can be an important aspect for prospective students and even parents. Some particularly good schools are located in less-than-desirable areas, which can be a factor worth investigating.

Loan default rates and private gifts/grants per full-time student are key financial indicators that could apply directly to students and parents who have acute or unusual financial needs. Overall, Niche covers a wide range of factors to arrive at their rankings. Berkman has far more pros than cons for Niche. I have emphasized my enthusiasm for certain aspects in bold.

Pros:

  • Niche relies on many more factors to determine its rankings. The rankings are based on more than 50 statistics and survey responses on 20 topics from almost 300,000 current students and alumni ... It seems to be a more well-rounded ranking list instead of just using factors that it deems important.
  • Also, the Niche rankings place a much higher emphasis on factors that are related to quality of life. Student survey responses about the quality of the overall experience at the college count for 12% of the rankings. Additionally, Niche gives scores for "campus quality," "athletics," and "party scene."
  • Besides overall college rankings, Niche also provides college rankings in 54 different categories. Some of those ranking lists include "best campus food," "best academics," "best party schools," and "safest campus." You can focus on the ranking lists in categories that are important to you instead of just looking at the overall rankings that may utilize criteria that don't matter to you.
  • Another positive of the Niche rankings is that they incorporate average net price. Net price is the average cost of a school after financial aid for students receiving grants or scholarship aid. Unlike metrics such as average amount of federal loans and loan default rate, net price doesn't favor schools with more wealthy students.
  • Finally, Niche is one of the few ranking lists that factors in diversity in its rankings. Diversity doesn't just refer to the ethnic and racial breakdown of the student body. Niche uses "diversity" to mean that a school "fosters a community that accepts and promotes a diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses." Also, a diverse school has a significant percentage of international students and students that represent every geographic region of the United States, and the faculty is diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity.

Berkman's cons for Niche hardly seem like cons, compared with those he cites for U.S. News and Forbes:

Cons:

  • Niche is not as well-known as U.S. News or Forbes. Because its rankings are not as prestigious or referenced, they have much less of an impact on the reputations of different colleges.
  • Additionally, because Niche uses many more factors in its rankings, it's likely to use criteria that don't matter to you in a college. You may not be very concerned about a school's party scene, the athletics, or how the girls rank. Those are all factors in the Niche rankings.

I must admit that I was not all that familiar with the Niche rankings, having merely heard about them but not studying them. It's unfortunate that they are not better known. That's one of the reasons I wanted to highlight them in reasonable detail here. I agree with Berkman about the broader base of evaluation criteria enabling a more analytical look at particular schools. In my view, it's far better to have more factors than fewer.

I encourage all college-bound high schoolers (and their parents) to take a close look at the Niche rankings. Students who have the time and motivation can then compare where (and why) their candidate colleges land in the various rankings sets. Of course, the effect of subjectivity in some criteria could obfuscate a clear comparison. A detailed study would be time well spent. Unfortunately, some students and their families spend less time choosing prospective colleges than they do planning their vacations.

Consider This Additional Alternative

Finally, a few of my own words about Money's college rankings, which focus on a much more sharply focused and limited set of criteria than do those of Niche. Money entitles its rankings "The Best Colleges in America, Ranked by Value" and prefaces them with this:

Going to college shouldn't mean a lifetime of debt. To find the schools that successfully combine quality and affordability, Money weighed more than 20,000 data points, including tuition fees, family borrowing and career earnings. Explore our list, then build your own.

Money ranks schools based on the following criteria:

  • Estimated price 2020-21 without aid
  • Estimated price with average grant
  • Percentage of students who get any grants
  • Graduation rate
  • Average student debt
  • Early career earnings

This makes sense coming from a publication called Money. Also, it's not surprising that the three top-ranked schools are MIT, Stanford and Princeton. The usual suspects then follow with a few surprises. You can also "Build Your Own Rankings:" Use Money's database of high-value colleges to create your own shortlist. Pick at least one factor, such as location, test scores, or major, to find schools that fit your needs. Then re-rank your colleges based on how important financial aid and postgraduate earnings are to you. See your list change as you make new selections.

There are also "Rankings for the Majors and Campus Settings You Want": There's no single college that's right for every student. We know that. So we crunched the data to find the best schools for, say, business majors, or B students. You get the idea. See our most popular lists below, and check back for new additions.

So many rankings; so little time. Don't be afraid to look at all the rankings, rather than focusing only on U.S. News.

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