How To Make the “Top 10” on Niche and Princeton Review
A prospective student’s (or the prospective student’s parents) first interaction with a college or university usually occurs online. Websites such as Niche and Princeton Review have become a popular and widely used tool by thousands of aspiring college students each year looking for their home for the next four years. A great part about these sites is that the user can choose from several things important to them when searching for a school; financial aid, campus diversity, the size of the student body, and popular majors are just a few of the modifiers. But increasingly, many prospective students are looking at something else entirely; food. I know this because I was one of these students; in 2014, I was trying to find MY ideal school. I already knew what major I wanted to pursue, and I didn’t really care about the geographic location or the size of the student body as long as it had good food. Many colleges and universities have come to the realization that food is a genuinely important part of student life, and that websites such as Niche and Princeton Review play an outsized role in increasing their organization’s visibility. But in order to take full advantage of these websites’ influence, one must first ask: “How are these rankings calculated and how do I get my school’s food ranked by Niche or Princeton Review in the first place”?
- Gather student feedback and start making improvements: The first and by far most important way that these rankings are calculated are based off student feedback. After all, these are the individuals who will be spending the most time in the dining hall and the ones who will be able to provide the most objective opinion on the true state of the dining program. We’ve heard numerous areas for improvements resulting from surveys; it will obviously depend on your particular student body, but some of the common themes we’ve found are a lack of late-night options, a lack of vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free options, inflexible board plans, and an inability to use dining dollars at local restaurants. But the only way to find out what’s important to your students is to conduct your own survey and to conduct them regularly. All too often we’ve found that institutions start off strong with regular surveys as part of a new dining initiative, but they begin to lack the importance and urgency they once held after several years have gone by. If you’re finding that frequent surveys through sites like Survey Monkey are too much of a drain on your resources and time, consider hosting feedback town halls through social media channels. Remember that the majority of student communication nowadays is done in the virtual realm; if you engage with them in their preferred medium, you will receive a much higher rate of response. Additionally, we’ve heard from many student groups that they feel their feedback wasn’t heard. While it’s great to conduct periodic surveys, it’s even more important to pay attention to the data that’s gathered, create actionable steps to improve the dining program, and communicate the changes to students so they know their voices have been heard.
- Review your meal plan structures: The second way that these rankings are calculated is through the average cost of a meal plan as reported to the US Department of Education. This is another area where many institutions may be able to improve. First, we’ve heard from students throughout the country that there is an increasing desire for more flexible meal plans; many students simply don’t want to eat at the dining hall for the majority of their meals and would prefer to cook in their dorms or go back to their parent’s house for dinner several nights a week if they’re close to home. By providing flexible or partial meal plans to more students, institutions will be able to lower the average cost to its students. Admittedly, the average cost of meal plans is only taken into consideration for Niche and only accounts for 15% of an organization’s total score. While some may attempt to dismiss the importance of this factor, it’s important to remember that Niche ranked almost 1,400 campus foodservice programs last year. If your institution’s meal plan costs are noticeably higher than your peers, your program will likely be relegated to Page 12 of the rankings; a place that is rarely visited by prospective students or parents alike.
- Promote your institution: Now that you understand how these rankings are calculated, you need to understand how this information is shared with the various websites. As I mentioned previously, Niche creates its annual rankings based off (1) student feedback (85%), and (2) average meal plan costs (15%). Meal plan costs are nice and easy; the data is automatically pulled from the Department of Education which means you don’t have to worry about gathering this intel for the ranking sites. Student feedback, however, is much trickier as results from internal student surveys won’t cut it; students must submit reviews directly to Niche. With this in mind, institutions should take as many opportunities as possible to remind its students and alumni to post a review on these ranking sites. Small banners placed on annual student surveys and alumni communications are a great place to start. Princeton Review is a bit easier than Niche when it comes to sharing information with the site. As opposed to Niche’s reactive approach, Princeton Review is proactive in reaching out to the student bodies of the top 400 or so institutions that they’ve selected as the best performers in the country. They then distribute short questionnaires to the students asking about their experiences on campus, including the dining program. Even though Princeton Review meets organizations halfway, it is up to the college or university to make sure their students actually complete the questionnaire. Again, institutions should take as many opportunities as possible to remind their students of its importance; it can even be used as a tool for boosting school spirit and campus morale.
Now that you’ve learned how these various sites calculate their rankings and how they gather their information, its time to put in place what you’ve learned! Make no mistake, your college or university will not appear in the Top 10 next year if you begin this process now; it will likely take several years of hard work and a little bit of trial and error before your efforts bear fruit. But remember that students are increasingly looking at campus life as a crucially important factor when determining what college or university they will attend; not only would a Top 10 listing give you some great bragging rights, but it would also act as a powerful recruitment and retention tool that would increase your organization’s visibility exponentially.