A 2017 Gallup Poll evidenced that 28% of Americans who enrolled in postsecondary institutions would choose a different school in hindsight. That means that 4.7 million currently enrolled undergraduates will leave college regretting a foundational aspect of their choice, their institution.


College Insight 

Overview

College Insight is a responsive web application that aggregates publicly available data on colleges and universities in the United States.

Key Objectives 

College Insight aims to provide insights to anyone looking for objective, third-party data on higher education institutions in the United States. Their principal goal is to allow users access to custom displays of education data related to college choice in the United States— allowing users to make informed enrollment choices. They set themselves apart from their competitors by not directly selling anything, beautifully displaying data, and reinforcing to users that they are a “non-partisan” source of data. 

Overall Strategy 

College Insight transparently boosts their overall strategy– to increase access to higher education in the United States. In this case, access can be used synonymously with enrollment. College Insight is a product of The Institute for College Access and Success. In the education sector, this type of business organization is common. 

Market Advantage 

College Insight is unique because of their ability to remain mostly impartial. They don’t advertise individual schools, and they’re not attempting to solicit detailed student reviews. They also have a market advantage because they do not exist within the same fiscal limitations of a for-profit entity. College Insight does not need not turn a profit if The Institute for College Access and Success successfully solicits enough goodwill donations to operate the project. Their tax-exempt status is their greatest asset and greatest weakness. Their 501c(3) status and non-profit charter would legally prohibit showing any preference towards a particular institution. As such, they are reliant on fundraising (not sales) to staff their project. 

Marketing Profile 

The overall marketing profile of College Insights benefits from a positive public reputation. Named by US News and World Reports as a Top 10 College Search site, they only market themselves to users on the site and through informational newsletter content. College Insights is a trusted source, often cited by journalists and policymakers. They regularly post on Facebook and Twitter. In 2017, they sent 20 charitable donation requests to their 100K+ email subscriber list. 

SWOT Profile

Strengths 

  1. Strong Existing Product— College Insights is a beautiful digital product. Their established site infrastructure appears to be the central point of their investment in the project. They have already completed the tedious aspect of writing the code required to scrape all of the relevant data from government websites. 
  2. Non-profit status—it means that they’re not playing by the same market rules as everyone else in the segment. 

Weaknesses 

  1. Information Overload— The website, honestly, contains far too much information. That information is often irrelevant or contextually unclear. For example, as a career educator, I may understand what it means for the data to be “adjusted to sector,” but the intended user of the data (16-18 years old) may not. 
  2. Revenue— College Insights also does not appear to have any significant revenue stream outside of philanthropic donations. Of the approximately $3.9 million in net assets listed on their 2017 Form 990, less than $165,000 are from revenue produced by the program. The balance of nearly $3.75 million arrives on their balance sheet via grants and contributions. 

Opportunities 

  1. Nationwide Program Focus— The organization is headquartered in Oakland appears most invested in the California market for higher education. While their data tools serve a nationwide audience, most activities of the organization are most proximal to serving California residents. 
  2. User Base Growth— TICAS reports over 280,000 site views and over 100,000 email newsletter subscribers in 2017, but there are over 15 million college students in the United States, clearly evidencing opportunity to reach a wider audience. 
  3. Native Apps— College Insight does not currently have a native iOS or Android application. However, their decision to abandon the native application market is logical. Without the need to sign-in or download an application, their web app can be viewed as a trusted, impartial tool. 

Threats 

  1. Data is boring—The data provided on this website is imminently useful; it’s just not sexy. College Insight is threatened by companies like Niche who mostly access the same public data and combine it with unique ranking algorithms or student-review content. 
  2. DeVos DOE— College Insight relies entirely on higher education institutions to release data to the government (under legal threat) so that they can then aggregate that data. The Trump Department of Education is unwinding a lot of the hard-won efforts to regulate for-profit schools. If the government falls behind or fails to college the data, College Insight is harmed.  

Usability 

The user experience of the is excellent, only minimal usability issues. For example, if a user wishes to search by school,they must select a “College Spotlight,” a phrase that does not intuitively communicate the outcomes of the navigation. There is no paywall or sign-in wall to prohibit users unfettered exploration of the website.  

Layout 

The web application is laid out intuitively. What I presume is the most common action on the site (browsing a topic) is the first item that users see when they open the web application. The overall layout of the product is very familiar, generally feeling like a modern, precise, well-executed web build. 

Navigation Structure 

The navigation structure naturally guides users to one of three options–college spotlight, explore all data, and browse topics. As I navigate the web app, I do find myself able to intuitively and quickly locate expected features. 

Compatibility 

College Insight is a web-first application that displays seamlessly and beautifully in any web browser, mobile, or desktop. 

Differentiation 

College Insight relies on data reported to the federal government by the institutions themselves. We can differentiate ourselves from College Insight by leveraging user-driven insights that may give students a clearer picture of institutional life. To a certain extent, College Insight showcases data that might not tell the whole story. I hope to differentiate my product by not viewing College Insight as a competitor, instead choosing to frame them as a resourceful ally of supplemental data. 

Calls to Action 

One call to action seems to be present throughout– a “Share” icon prompts users to share their finding on Facebook, Twitter, or Email. College Insights also has one email newsletter CTA where users are prompted to “Sign up for the latest from College Insight.” Beyond that, users are free to explore the resource without intrusive pop-ups or prompts.


Niche 

Overview 

Niche is a platform that helps connects users to colleges. Founded in 2002 as “College Prowler”, Niche has approximately 75 employees, is headquartered in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and is an early stage venture company that received Series B funding in the last year. 

Key Objectives 

Niche purports to help users “find where you belong.” They present themselves as a company that seeks to address the issue of “fit” in schools, communities, and workplaces— this is the key objective that any user of the application would presumably be interested in.

Overall Strategy 

Niche’s overall strategy is to convince users that the data they provide  is unique, even though the majority hardly is. For their education offerings, they generate their data through web-ads targeted at students prompting them to review aspects of their school. At the time of their Series B in 2018, they had managed to collect 25 million surveys.  They’re a well-branded enterprise that originated in 2002 as “College Prowler” at Carnegie-Mellon University, “the birth place of data science.” During Niche’s 2018 Series B funding round the company was referred to as a “recruiting platform.” The bottom-line strategy of Niche is relatively straightforward– become the undisputed repository of college review data (regardless of the legitimacy of that data), then sell access to that data to the institutions. Niche sells “partnerships” that allow institutions to (a) manage their school’s profile, (b) promote their school using Niche rankings, and (c) upgrade to “premium”  which allows colleges to customize their landing page. 

Market Advantage 

Niche believes that their market advantage is that they capture holistic experiences. They acknowledge that prospective students need more than just statistics. Their primary market advantage is that they can boast that 50 million people used Niche last year and over 100 million ratings and reviews from real people.  

Marketing Profile 

Niche is heavily reliant on big data solutions and targeted ads to promote market their services. They also have a dedicated sales team that makes contact with colleges, universities, and K-12 institutions. They use their sales team to convince institutions to pay for premium profiles which cost approximately 4-6K per academic year. Once premium profiles are activated, Niche provides users with dedicated marketing materials to feature their Niche rankings. Niche services are designed to create a marketing multiplier effect– schools now boast their Niche ranking on billboards or their website, amplifying the Niche brand.  

SWOT Profile

Strengths 

  1. Branding— Niche has a strong brand that features a beautiful website, familiar feeling logo, and clean, attractive design throughout. Their web build is well-financed and professional. 
  2. Big Data— Niche has a massive head start. Niche outpaces almost all other competitors in the area of data collection necessary for a startup in this segment. They also have established relationships with the marketing departments of thousands of schools who pay for Niche Premium profiles.

Weaknesses

  1. Also, big data— Niche’s over-reliance on boasting about  large amounts of data is almost laughable. Niche makes zero effort to verify any of the information that users purport to be true when writing reviews. At leastYelp is transparent about extorting business owners in exchange for the removal of negative reviews. 
  2. Focus— Niche lacks focus. Is Niche trying to help you find a new neighborhood, get scholarships, get a job, find a college, or participate as a reviewer? 

Opportunities 

  1. Data Display— Niche has an excellent framework for collecting and displaying data; if only they ensured that the data collection was reliable. 
  2. Genuinely Useful Metrics— Addressing the idea of fit is an actual core concern for people selecting a college or university, but the Niche’s business focus quickly becomes about selling recruitment leads. Developing a genuinely unique metric that attempts to answer the question of fit is a huge opportunity. 

Threats 

  1. Legal—If Niche doesn’t take down negative reviews that they are unable to verify, it will only take one school with deep pockets to mount a defamation lawsuit that could be financially ruinous. 
  2. Public Data— 88% or more of the data included in Niche’s algorithm is public data. They rely on institutions to release data to the government (under legal threat) for their aggregation. The Trump Department of Education is currently unwinding a lot of the hard-won efforts to regulate for-profit schools. If the government falls behind or fails to collect data, Niche is harmed. 

Usability 

The application is incredibly user-friendly and includes all of the markers that a user would expect from a modern, well-funded native iOS application. 

Layout 

There is usually a search bar at the top of the page associated with the “area” of the Niche application you are currently in– Places to Work, Places to Live, K-12 Schools, or Colleges. The layout functionally sorts information into Niche-created content (“Best Of” lists, surveys, “Hardest Colleges to Get Into,” etc.) and user-created content on institutional pages. The bulk of the data is presented on the institution pages.  

Navigation Structure 

After you download the native application, users are prompted to log in with Facebook, Google, or Email. The next screen prompts users to select is what they are searching for (Colleges, Places to Live, K-12 Schools, Places to Work). The information flow then prompts the user “where,” making location the primary sorting category for the data. Once a user has selected a location, navigating back and forth between categories is automatic. 

Compatibility 

Niche has native apps on iOS and Android as well as a responsive web presence on mobile, tablet, and desktop. 

Differentiation 

I have no illusions about the head start that Niche has in the area of big data. But it’s also one of the cautionary tales of over-reliance on big data. Eventually, everyone will realize that there is an incredible incentive to game these systems. Marketing departments willpay to clean up reviews. Ultimately, I predict that Niche will begin collecting premium fees from institutions that want more control over their review content. A core aspect that will differentiate any product that I develop from Niche will be that we will not allow anonymous reviews. In my opinion, if you cannot establish a relationship to the place that you’re reviewing (in this case, a “.edu” email address that belongs to that particular institution), you ought not be allowed to review it. 

Calls to Action 

The more school pays for their premium profile, the more features they unlock. Functionally, they’re unlocking customizable “calls to action” on their page– visit the campus, learn more, take a virtual tour, introduce yourself, etc. If you want to leave a review on Niche, there is a call to action to make an account. After you have surrendered something that appears to be a working email address, no action is necessary to confirm your account because Niche is primarily concerned with boasting a high number of unique users and reviewers.