4 Things You Might Not Know About MBA Rankings

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Friday, June 28, 2019
By Marco De Novellis
Photo by iStock
Choosing an MBA program based on rankings alone is a mistake. Applicants should look deeper, into the data and the methodologies that lurk below.

Rankings are a convenient way to compare business schools. According to recent data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 81 percent of prospective students globally consult them when deciding which business school to go to.

But, choosing an MBA program based on ranking alone is a mistake. There are other factors to consider—cost, location, accreditation, program type, flexibility—and you need to establish whether a business school will deliver on your individual career goals.

Plus, when you consider rankings, you need to know there’s much more to them than meets the eye. To best use rankings when applying to business school, you need to look deeper, beneath the surface, into the data and the methodologies that lurk below.

Here are four things you might not know about MBA rankings—that you probably should:

1. Every Ranking Is Different

Bloomberg Businessweek, the Economist, the Financial Times, U.S. News; there are so many rankings out there. To stand out, each ranking is purposely designed to be different, with different methodologies producing different results.

What and how things are measured varies for each ranking. The Financial Times (FT) Global MBA Ranking, for example, gives a 59 percent weight to its alumni survey—asking questions about salaries, promotions, and satisfaction; 31 percent to school-sourced data; and 10 percent to the school’s research strengths.

U.S. News, on the other hand, doesn’t include an alumni survey. Instead, it surveys AACSB accredited business schools – collecting quantifiable data on thinks like employment rates and GMAT scores – and recruiters. Based on school data , the ranking weights alumni placement success at 35 percent; a school’s academic reputation at 25 percent; student quality at 25 percent; and reputation among employers at 15 percent.

While both give heavy weight to salaries and jobs data, U.S. News’ measure of student quality—GMAT scores are one metric, for example—sets it apart from the FT. It’s also focused purely on U.S. schools, while the FT ranks business schools globally, as long as they’re accredited by AACSB.

There are niche rankings out there, too. QS ranks MBA programs by specialization. The Corporate Knights Better World MBA Ranking evaluates programs based on their commitment to sustainability.

The point is, no single ranking should ever be taken as fact. You need to compare, critique, and study different rankings tables over time to see which schools show up where and for what reasons.

2. You Can't Always Trust Rankings

When I spoke on a podcast about MBA rankings this month, most of my time was spent talking about scandal.

Scandal has rocked the rankings world in recent years, with some schools kicked out of rankings for misreporting data, or not returning data in time.

How deeply can you trust MBA rankings? How far can they be exploited?

U.S. News analyzes the data schools provide, comparing it to the previous year to spot any major changes. But, that approach has proved ineffective when a school misreports data year after year.

To validate its data, the FT has a comprehensive audit of 25 schools conducted by professional services firm KPMG each year. However, the FT’s heavy reliance on its alumni survey is a problem.

Alumni have a vested interest in saying positive things about their school: What alum doesn’t want a top-ranked business school on their resume? This calls into question the reliability of rankings data.

3. Schools Bay Be Missing

When schools are excluded from a ranking, it can create suspicion about the relevance of the ranking itself.

The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education released a ranking of MBA programs in 2018, but four of the FT’s top 10 schools were not featured.

Columbia, Harvard, Wharton, and London Business School refused to participate in the ranking due to “rankings fatigue”; it takes a lot of work for a school to provide data to so many different rankings publications with varying methodologies and requirements.

The schools that came out on top in the WSJ/THE ranking are naturally promoting their success. However, if you read that Stanford University is the top school in the world according to WSJ and THE, as it was last year, you need to know that’s not the full story.

4. They're Changing

Although they are each different, most rankings today put a strong emphasis on salary data: the more money the alumni from that school earn, the higher a school is ranked. But, there are signs of change.

The FT included corporate social responsibility in its methodology for the first time this year and announced it will be reviewing its methodology completely for 2020—the first time it’s done so since it started ranking schools in 1997.

Presented at the World Economic Forum, the Business School Rankings for the 21st Century report argues that the weight given to the salary measure should be reduced, or eliminated, with more weight given to a school’s focus on environmental and social factors. It says schools that train students to work for socially impactful organizations—even if those jobs pay less—should be credited.

These changes could significantly disrupt the established order of business schools in ways we can’t yet predict. More than ever, you need to be aware of ranking methodologies—and how they are changing—so you can choose your schools based on the factors you care about the most, whether those include rankings or not.

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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