Popularized in the ’80s by U.S. News & World Report, college rankings have become a go-to tool for prospective students and parents, not to mention an annual “popularity” contest for higher-education institutions. While U.S. News began the practice and still remains the most popular source for such rankings, a new competitor is growing in popularity.
Niche.com is quickly becoming one of the most talked-about college-rankings resources in the country. According to the Washington Post, “Niche claims that it draws more social-media buzz from students than U.S. News.” The company, which began in 2002 by publishing guidebooks of American colleges, has since pivoted and is now the second Google result when one searches for “college rankings.” While the site provides K-12, graduate-school, and scholarship information, it is most often consulted for its data on four-year, undergraduate institutions.
As a trendy website, Niche.com naturally supplies trendy data.As a trendy website, Niche.com naturally supplies trendy data, including Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) rankings. The site’s “2024 Most Diverse Colleges in America” list scores the top 1,000 of nearly 4,000 institutions considered. Additionally, as part of its rankings for each institution, Niche awards a letter grade (“A+” through “D-”) for diversity.
So how do North Carolina’s public institutions rank where “diversity” is concerned?
Though the private institutions North Carolina Wesleyan (#100, A+ diversity score) and Duke (#108, A+) made Niche’s list, no UNC-System institutions were among the top-100 most diverse. The first 116 schools on the list have an A+ grade, whereas none of the 16 UNC-System institutions received a diversity score above an A (or below a B-).
The table below shows the diversity scores for the UNC-System institutions.
Here, meanwhile, are the factors Niche considered:
As the reader will note, Niche’s understanding of “diversity” is entirely defined by such progressive concerns as race and sex (or “gender”), with a dash of regional and economic distinction thrown in. But are such markers really of greater importance for colleges than diversity of thought, not to mention academic quality?
Generally, as U.S. News and various other sources have found, the top factors that influence students’ college choice are academic quality, cost, and return on investment. And while U.S. News has taken these factors into consideration in its most recent rankings, Niche appears to prioritize other factors. As the UNC-Chapel Hill “report card” indicates, an obsession with diversity (narrowly defined) isn’t the site’s only controversial choice.
Unfortunately, Niche’s website isn’t especially user-friendly. In order to find the details about how these grades are calculated, you have to navigate to a different page that describes the methodology. While the grades on the report card might be useful to some, Niche could easily provide more detailed information on the report card pages themselves. Even simple explanations for each factor would be interesting: What is considered a “good” dorm or a “good” professor? Having to jump around to various pages to get the full picture makes the website cumbersome to navigate. What we’re left with is a juvenile list of trendy topics that provide little valuable knowledge about a school’s offerings. Whatever Niche may think, Chapel Hill’s diversity, party scene, dorms, and food quality are generally secondary concerns.
Niche.com’s claim to provide the “most rigorous data analysis” in the rankings business is questionable.Though Niche boasts that its “algorithm only relies on the most trustworthy sources,” its claim to provide the “most rigorous data analysis” in the rankings business is questionable. When comparing Niche’s data sources to one of its main competitors, U.S. News, one finds that they’re quite similar. Both utilize the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as well as data provided by the U.S. Department of Education, specifically the College Scorecard. Niche also sources data from the Center for Measuring University Performance (concerning faculty and student awards) and the National Science Foundation (concerning college expenditures by department). Finally, Niche makes use of its own college-student surveys and the “partner accounts” that allow colleges to make updates to their own “information.”
The issue with most any survey methodology is that biases can persist despite the measures taken to avoid them. The language on Niche’s website implies that its method is superior because it removes the opportunity for bias by not using data submitted by colleges; however, Niche appears to disregard the very present opportunity for bias where student reviews are concerned.
For example, UNC-Chapel Hill has 2,617 reviews on Niche.com as of this writing. Of those, 1,781 are above average (four or more stars), 714 are average (three stars), and 122 are negative (two or fewer stars). As with most reviews, the vast majority of people will leave a comment only if their experience was either distinctly good or distinctly bad. Reading Chapel Hill’s reviews reveals personal qualms and biases held by the authors, with some claiming (for example) that the rigor of classes is a negative. A few reviews, moreover, are from people who haven’t attended the school but have known acquaintances to enjoy it. Still others had positive experiences but cited “racism and diversity” issues as a drawback.
Niche’s website is clearly designed to attract the interest of a younger crowd. Prospective students can casually view data and get surface-level information about colleges and universities. And Niche is unlikely to stop offering diversity data or lists of the top party schools anytime soon, since there is clearly an audience for these points. Ultimately, however, Niche’s claim to be the best ranking system is quite a sweeping notion. Biases exist here, too, and cannot be completely avoided regardless of the data-collection method. Niche is no exception to the rule.
Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.