Carnegie Mellon University
April 29, 2020

Niche Helps Students Choose the Right College

CMU graduate takes unexpected path in creating world's largest school search platform

By Jason Maderer

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
  • 412-268-1151
When Luke Skurman was a high school junior in the San Francisco Bay Area, he started searching for information about colleges. He found plenty of possibilities, but very little first-hand insight.

"Much of the available information was from the universities themselves, or non-insider authors who wrote about academics but very little about campus culture, diversity or athletics," said Skurman. "And there wasn't an easy way to connect with current students that could fill in the blanks at the colleges I was interested in attending, including Carnegie Mellon."

Skurman knew there needed to be better options for students and families facing the pressures and challenges of deciding where to attend college. An idea was born in 2000 during his sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon: insights about universities from students themselves. His company, based on user reviews, launched two years later, the day after he received his undergraduate degree in business administration from the Tepper School of Business.

"It was right around the time Yelp and Tripadvisor were getting underway," said Skurman, who also earned his master's degree in public policy and management from the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy in 2004. "We created the same kind of platform for universities."

Skurman's College Prowler would soon publish hundreds of college guidebooks, selling hundreds of thousands that provided the "inside scoop" to high school students based on recommendations from college students. The company has since evolved — the printed books are long gone — and College Prowler has a new name: Niche is now the nation's largest school search platform with 140 million reviews.

Fifty million students and parents used the free service in the last year, seeking suggestions and transparent feedback about higher education, preschools, K-12 schools, neighborhoods and jobs. Fifty percent of high school seniors have a Niche account.

To complement the student reviews, Niche publishes a quantitative profile of every higher ed institution in America, listing acceptance rates, tuition and national rankings. The company also partners with 1,400 schools, allowing them to share their own information on the Niche app and websites, including application links, virtual tours and featured program (Carnegie Mellon is a partner university). Niche has become the number one website for colleges to recruit students online.

What started as an idea in the Tepper School is now a Pittsburgh-based company with 120 full-time employees. Nearly 20 percent of them are CMU graduates, including Niche's Chief Technology Officer Geoff Misek (electrical and computer engineering) and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tressler (business administration).

"Going from Carnegie Mellon to Niche was a great transition," said Ana Rottaro, a product analyst who graduated from CMU in 2018 (economics and public policy and management). "Both provided motivating goals, supportive peers and challenging work. Every day I practice what I learned at CMU by taking on ambiguous problems, asking the right questions and being flexible in my approach. Now at Niche, I get to provide analytics to inform business strategy, increase efficiency and effectiveness of revenue streams and better the reliability of our systems."

"I always felt very welcomed in Pittsburgh. The people here have always tried to lift me up and make the company as successful as possible," said Skurman, now a member of Carnegie Mellon's Board of Trustees. "We created momentum in this city, and it's great to be here."

This week, Niche announced that it has raised $35 million in Series C funding led by Radian Capital with additional participation from Salesforce Ventures, as well as existing investors Allen & Company LLC and Tim Armstrong. Niche also announced that Francisco D'Souza, a CMU alumnus and Board of Trustees member, will bring his deep experience to the company's board of directors. D'Souza is the Co-Founder and former CEO of Cognizant.

The path to founding his own business wasn't exactly what Skurman envisioned when he arrived at Carnegie Mellon after coming across the country from the west coast. He planned on going to Wall Street after graduation to focus on finance. However, as he advanced in his academic career, he found that he preferred something more practical and less theoretical.

That led him to entrepreneurship classes, where Skurman found a little bit of everything: financing, accounting, marketing, management and product development. "It was all of it together, but nothing too deep. The breadth of business all really spoke to me," said Skurman. "I hit my stride on campus when I found those entrepreneurship classes."

Skurman says he's always had a passion for helping people, which is Niche's main focus. He continues to stay involved at CMU outside of his role as a trustee. Skurman has previously volunteered in the Tepper School as a teaching assistant for entrepreneurship courses, has guest lectured on campus numerous times and is active in the CMU and Pittsburgh start-up community.

For a person who built his business on recommendations, he has some of his own for current Carnegie Mellon graduates: "Definitely get internships or co-ops while in school," he said. "There's tremendous value in figuring out if you like working for a small company or a large company, in cities or on a campus. Seek out advice, all with the goal of finding out what you really like doing and could see yourself pursuing for the next three to five years after graduation."

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