How Should Students Weight Business School Rankings?

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo: iStock/RyanJLane
Why applicants should look to factors other than the rankings—such as culture and accreditation—to decide which business programs are the best fit for them.

Once prospective business students decide to pursue business education, it can be an overwhelming prospect to decide which schools make their short lists. With so many business schools worldwide to choose from, what is the best way for students to narrow down their options to a few programs that best suit their educational preferences and career aspirations?

Many start this process by referring to national and global rankings of undergraduate and graduate business programs. Conducted by a range of prominent business publications and organizations, these rankings offer a seemingly quick and easy way to identify the world’s best business schools at a glance.

But it’s important to note that each ranking provides only a limited snapshot—a snapshot that represents only around 50 to 100 business schools. In contrast, there are hundreds of business schools worldwide that provide great value in terms of educational quality, career and professional development, networking opportunities, and return on investment.

For that reason, prospective students should understand exactly what the rankings can tell them about the best business schools in the world—and where these evaluations fall short.

Understanding the Methodology

To use the rankings wisely, prospective students might find it helpful to examine the methodologies these systems use to evaluate a business school’s overall quality. Each uses different criteria and weights those criteria according to different priorities. Consider, for example, a quick comparison of the six most prominent rankings:

  • Bloomberg Businessweek published the first business school ranking in 1988, when it was known as BusinessWeek. Today, the publication ranks business schools within four global regions. Each ranking is based on survey responses from students, alumni, and recruiters on four areas that these stakeholder groups reported as most important to them: compensation (weighted 37.3 percent), networking (25.7 percent), learning (21.3 percent), and entrepreneurship (15.7 percent). (Because of COVID-19, the publication suspended its usual rankings for 2020–21. Instead, it conducted a survey of MBA students about their experience making the sudden switch to online learning as a result of the pandemic.)
  • U.S. News & World Report compiles its rankings of the best graduate and undergraduate business programs. It evaluates full-time, part-time, executive, and online MBA programs across 13 specialty areas ranging from accounting to supply chain management. The publication follows a methodology based on three parts: quality assessments from the perspective of both peer schools and recruiters (weighted .40); career placement success, based on salary and employment rates (.35); and selectivity, based on mean standardized test scores, mean undergraduate GPA, and overall acceptance rate (.25).
  • The Financial Times (FT) compiles rankings across several categories. These include master’s in management, master’s in finance, executive education, online MBA, and global MBA programs, as well as a separate ranking of European business schools. The FT’s ranking of global MBA programs, for example, is based on 20 different criteria. For eight of these criteria, the FT draws from alumni surveys collected over three years; these criteria collectively account for 61 percent of the ranking. Data provided by schools inform 11 criteria and are weighted at 29 percent. The number of articles a school’s full-time faculty have published in 50 recognized journals over the past two years accounts for 10 percent.
  • Forbes lists business schools solely according to MBA graduates’ earnings during the first five years after graduation compared to the opportunity cost of pursuing MBA education.
  • The Economist’s Which MBA? ranks business schools in three categories—full-time MBA, executive MBA, and master’s in management programs. The full-time MBA ranking is based on surveys of current MBA students and recent MBA graduates regarding new career opportunities (weighted 35 percent), educational experience and personal development (35 percent), post-graduation salary (20 percent), and networking opportunities (10 percent).
  • The Princeton Review evaluates U.S. business schools across many qualitative categories, such as best administered, best campus environment, best professors, best career prospects, best classroom experience, most family-friendly, and best “green” MBA. It also ranks schools within individual regions and across specialty areas, as well as by the quality of their resources for minorities and women. The publication bases these rankings entirely on surveys of students and administrators.

Then there is the composite ranking conducted by Poets & Quants, which is based on analyzing and combining the results of the first five rankings above. This approach “rewards schools for subjecting themselves to an analysis by all five of the most influential rankings,” according to the publication’s most recent report.

This statement reflects how much time and effort business schools expend to gather and submit the data required across all criteria. In addition, schools must ensure that enough of their students and graduates submit completed surveys so that their programs meet a given ranking’s minimum response requirements.

John Byrne, the creator of BusinessWeek’s first MBA ranking, is now the editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants. In a 2015 interview with AACSB Explores, Byrne admits that “there is no perfect way to really rank business schools or any schools.” As imperfect as they are, though, Byrne adds that the rankings can provide “a lot of helpful information to applicants in the marketplace that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Beyond the Rankings

Even when publications use similar criteria, the weight they place on those criteria can shift a school’s position considerably. For example, in 2019, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College was ranked No. 2 by Bloomberg Businessweek, but No. 12 by U.S News & World Report. That same year, HEC Paris was ranked No. 3 by The Economist, but No. 19 in the FT’s Global MBA. In 2020, HEC Paris’ FT ranking improved considerably, moving up to No. 9. In many cases, these shifts are driven by very small quantitative and qualitative differences.

Keep in mind, too, that rankings results can be skewed when some schools opt out altogether. In 2018, for example, Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and London Business School decided not to participate, citing “rankings fatigue.” This meant that other schools were able to move up into spots these four schools otherwise would have secured.

So, given the variability that exists from ranking to ranking, how should prospective students weight this factor in their overall search processes? Here are steps they can take:

Align a ranking’s methodology with personal objectives. As a first step, students should identify what types of programs best suit their needs. Are they looking for full-time or part-time programs? In-person or online? Do they want to study general management or specialize? Do they want to study at home or abroad? Are they looking for higher salaries or changes in career? With that information, they can consult the rankings whose methodologies measure attributes they find most important.

Students who want to pursue business within a particular specialty area also might search for rankings focused on that topic, whether it’s social impact, finance, accounting, entrepreneurship, or another area of interest.

Use other online tools to pinpoint suitable programs. Databases on websites such as FindMBA and allow prospective students to generate lists of schools filtered by their chosen criteria—such as accreditation, program type, specialization, and geographic region.

Consider important factors that rankings do not measure. These factors include whether a school is teaching-oriented or research-oriented, whether it has a significant number of minorities or women on the faculty, or how active its student clubs are in the community. Students who are interested in being immersed in a particular industry should take a school’s location and community connections into account.

Look beyond the rankings to accreditation status. As mentioned above, any given ranking highlights only 100 or so business schools, which offers an incomplete picture of the market. In fact, hundreds of schools have proven the quality of their programs by pursuing, earning, and maintaining accreditation.

Today, for example, business programs at approximately 870 schools worldwide are AACSB-accredited. To achieve this status, schools must undertake a multiyear process in which they demonstrate to independent reviewers that their business programs align with nine rigorous standards. These standards fall under three categories: strategic management and innovation; learner success; and thought leadership, engagement, and societal impact. Similarly, AACSB-accredited accounting programs have met six standards that fall under three categories: strategic management and innovation, learning and teaching, and academic and professional engagement.

Ask those with firsthand knowledge about their experiences. By speaking to staff, students, and alumni, business school candidates can gain a far better sense of a school’s academic and social culture than they could through rankings alone.

In a 2018 interview for AACSB’s Best Business Schools Blog, Matt Symonds of Quacquarelli Symonds, a publisher of university rankings, emphasizes that “rankings never should replace outreach to the schools.” Interacting with the members of a school’s community, he says, offers “a tremendous opportunity to find out more about that sense of fit.”

In the end, Symonds notes that the rankings should not be anyone’s only basis for choosing a business school. Prospective students should strive to think “in terms of not which is the best business school,” he says, “but which is the best business school for me.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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