With $35M in Series C Funding, Pittsburgh’s Niche Aims for College Search Supremacy

‹ News

Looking for a one-stop-shop for information about a school, neighborhood, or city? With $35 million in new funding, Niche, headquartered in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, aims to become the ultimate resource for rising college students and others hoping to learn more about schools and their communities. 

Niche began life as College Prowler, a series of physical guidebooks about specific universities written “by students, for students,” explained CEO and Founder Luke Skurman, who launched the company as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University in 2002. 

“There were a lot of institutions that could give you a great education,” Skurman said, “but where were you going to fit in and be happy?”

The company rebranded to Niche in 2013 and expanded to include K-12 schools across the country. 

“We also did a lot of user testing, and we began to realize that folks that were interested in school research were also thinking about homes, and that the price of a home was often correlated to the quality of a school district. And if you’re thinking about schools, you’re often thinking about neighborhoods in suburbs.”

In 2018, Niche announced $6.6 million in Series B funding. The company provides letter grades for K-12 schools, colleges, graduate schools, and places to live using a mixture of information. Their website states that Niche does “rigorous cleaning and analysis on large data sets, and combines them with feedback from our community for nuanced insight that can’t be found anywhere else.”

For example, university grades are calculated using an algorithm made up of 40% academics; 27.5% value; 7.5% professors; 5% each for campus, diversity, student life and student surveys; and 2.5% local area and safety. Places to live are assigned a grade based on 15 separate factors, the largest being cost of living and higher education rate (12.5% each), down to commute time (2.5%)

Using those metrics, Pittsburgh is rated as an “A” place to live. Cleveland gets a B-, while Philadelphia scores a B+. Carnegie Mellon is an A+ school. The University of Pittsburgh gets an A, and Duquesne University an A-. Robert Morris University gets a B-, and CCAC a C. 

Skurman said that schools can’t pay to adjust the results, but universities can pay to have their school appear on other universities’ pages, and other remarketing efforts. Skurman said that Niche has 1,600 school clients currently and has identified 40,000 potential partners in the U.S. alone.

Niche’s privacy policy states that all categories of user personal information can be sold or otherwise transferred to select outside companies, advertisers, and other business partners.  Advertisers may include realtors, loan providers, schools, workplaces, and social media platforms such as Facebook. 

Skurman said that the COVID-19 pandemic has only hastened universities’ move to online marketing, and that one in two college-bound high school seniors is registered to the site.

“Colleges are finding new ways to get in front of students,” he said. “And this has been one of the ways that they’ve been investing more.”

Skurman said that with new funding secured, Niche plans to develop an app, offer more services for schools, and expand to include more online schools, certificate programs, and boot camps. 

Now with 127 employees, Skurman believes that Pittsburgh is the ideal place for Niche to continue to grow, and said the company hopes to add between 20 or 30 new employees by year’s end. 

“It’s exciting to know people are coming here because they know that there’s great people and there’s great talent,” he said. “I think that Pittsburgh has a lot of momentum. I think that it’s a very exciting time for Pittsburgh right now.”

Contributing Writer
Brian Conway is a freelance reporter based in Pittsburgh. His investigations into the city's lead in water crisis earned him First Prize for Environmental Reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in its statewide Spotlight contest. Brian has been published in several national news outlets, including Motherboard, October, and the Chicago Tribune. He is also a member/owner at the Work Hard Pittsburgh digital media cooperative.