When Abigail Kneuss was a high school junior living 40 minutes south of Akron, Ohio, the aspiring communications professional set her sights on going to college in Pittsburgh. Though indecisive, she narrowed her choices down to the University of Pittsburgh, Point Park University and Chatham University.

For insights about the schools, she turned to Niche, a Pittsburgh-bred tech portal that has accumulated more than 140 million first-person user reviews.

“When you’re 17 or 18, trying to figure out where you’re going to spend thousands of dollars, it gave me realistic opinions. It had the good stuff, as well as the bad stuff — I appreciated how genuine it could be,” says Kneuss, now 19 and a Niche “ambassador” finishing her freshman year at Chatham. “It really helped tell me what kind of experience I was going to have.”

On Thursday, the Strip District-based company took its mission a big step further, announcing $35 million in Series C funding to make the platform a leading destination for users to manage their school-search journey — right through the application process.

New York-based Radian Capital led the funding, with additional participation from Salesforce Ventures and existing investors Allen & Company and Tim Armstrong.

“Look at Tripadvisor in travel or Glassdoor in jobs — they started on aggregated data … and built out,” said Weston Gaddy, co-founder of Radian Capital and the newest board member at Niche. “Obviously, the educational journey is much more complex. As a business model, though, [Niche] is starting with information and deepening its assets with other tools. This is the path Niche will follow.”

Currently, more than one of every two college-bound high school seniors in the U.S. are registered on the site and using the company’s discovery tools to find a college or university, according to Niche, which was founded in 2013 and has a full-time staff of 120. In 2019, the website and associated app had more than 100 million visits.

High school juniors and seniors can already apply through Niche to Pittsburgh-area schools like Robert Morris University, and the organization has local clients from Carnegie Mellon University to Shadyside Academy to Central Catholic High School, Niche CEO Luke Skurman says. The company currently works with more than 1,400 school clients nationwide and will use the Series C funding to partner with thousands of additional schools.

“You’ve seen the modernization of several industries,” Skurman says. “We want to make it easier for students to have that college experience. We want to bring more of that functionality and reduce any friction.”

Choosing a college to attend “is a big decision,” he adds. “We have more than 100 million reviews to tell it like it is — we’re here to help people make the best decision possible.”

Though Niche and Radian Capital finalized the funding terms earlier, the COVID-19 crisis provides a platform such as theirs with a unique opportunity, several involved in the deal said Wednesday.

The College Board canceled ACT and SAT testing this spring, leaving more than one million students without the opportunity to take the tests. Some 1,100 colleges and universities responded to that development by making those test scores optional for 2021 admissions.

Niche recently surveyed some 60,000 teens and young adults to gain insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting students in schools and colleges across the country, says Nick Comanici, director of brand marketing for Niche. Niche also has accelerated the rollout of some new features to support schools that have been impacted by closures and is now including links to schools’ virtual tours to allow students to explore campus life online.

Skurman is a classic example of how experience shapes the hunt for the right college to attend.

In the late 1990s, as a high school junior in San Francisco, Skurman knew he wanted to attend a “top-rated university … with a great business school.” He just wanted it to be somewhere warm. And he hoped to root for an ACC basketball team.

Only parts of his vision played out as expected. He chose Carnegie Mellon University.

“I just got a great feeling at Carnegie Mellon — I just got the right vibe from it,” Skurman laughs. “I loved cities but I didn’t want to be in a concrete jungle. CMU just fit. There were a lot of good schools that would have given me a good education. But where would I fit in? They didn’t cover that well, the resources back then.”

Skurman, for one, likes running a business in Pittsburgh, where Niche plans to continue to expand headcount across product, engineering, marketing and sales.

“I think we have a truly devoted and resilient workforce here — they give their heart to it in a real way,” Skurman says. “The visibility of Pittsburgh is growing. And we want to be one of the pillars of this community.”

Justin Vellucci

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.