US News & World Report recently released its hotly anticipated annual rankings for MBA programs. These rankings, along with those of Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, Forbes, The Financial Times and The Economist, have become akin to the Holy Grail for many MBA hopefuls. While the data in the rankings have value, the rankings themselves have real limitations that applicants frequently ignore.
Rankings measure divergent aspects of a program, frequently using superficial metrics. Even when examining the same parameters, different rankings assign different weights to metrics such as GMAT scores, return on investment (ROI), and recruiter satisfaction. As a result, results can vary widely: Duke Fuqua was ranked #6 by BusinessWeek in 2010, #15 by The Financial Times 2012 Global MBA programs, #12 by US News in 2013, #12 in Forbes 2011, and #18 in 2011 by The Economist.
To make any sense of this numerical stew, applicants must understand each ranking’s methodology. For example, BusinessWeek bases its rankings on employer and student surveys with a dash of “intellectual capital,” while The Financial Times mixes in diversity and international reach, alumni salaries and career development, and research capabilities.
Once sophisticated MBA applicants understand what’s being measured, they need to evaluate which rankings measure and weigh as they do. If there isn’t an exact match, the data contain noise and can become flawed.
Many of the metrics reflect either inputs (GPA, GMAT) or outcomes (ROI). What about measurements of educational quality? You can’t rely on a simple reading of rankings here, either. Educational quality is highly subjective, and student objectives also vary, making “quality” different from student to student. For example, a woman interested in strategy consulting who wants to attend a business school with a strong women’s network should look at different factors than a man interested in management in the global energy field. For her, the surveys conducted by US News and BusinessWeek on leading schools in general management, and those by The Financial Times that rank schools based on the percentage of women in class and on faculty would be of strongest interest. In this case, looking at the metrics for very specific criteria, not the school’s overall rank, is most relevant.
Other caveats about the MBA rankings include the fact that surveys of students and alumni (BusinessWeek, Financial Times, The Economist) tend to be lavish in their praise of the schools, because they know that higher rankings increase the value of their degrees. There have even been incidents of fraud by zealous school employees seeking to game rankings for their own advancement. More innocently, survey participants may base their responses on stale experience or hearsay. And some rankings, including BusinessWeek, survey recruiters, but the interests of recruiters and applicants may differ. Finally, raw rankings don’t reveal the degree of difference between schools.
The buzz and excitement engendered by the rankings can also lull applicants into a false sense of security that they have done their homework just because they read the rankings. They haven’t. Even Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, wrote on his blog, “It’s important that you use the rankings to supplement—not substitute—careful thought and your own inquiries. The rankings should only be used as one tool to help you choose the right graduate school or program, not as the only factor driving your choice.”
Rankings are a good place to begin school research and an absolutely terrible place to end it. There is no substitute for real boots-on-the-ground research about MBA programs, which involves school visits (when possible), attending school information sessions, reading student blogs, in-depth studies of school web sites, and trying to connect with current students and alumni. This all takes time, but these steps empower applicants to accurately assess a program’s distinctions, strengths, weaknesses, and personality. So in addition to looking at the rankings, MBA hopefuls should invest the time to finding the program that will give them the best MBA experience for them as distinct and unique individuals.
By Linda Abraham, president and founder of Accepted.com, and Judy Gruen, Accepted.com senior editor. Linda and Judy are co-authors of the newly-released MBA Admissions for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.
Article first published as How Important are MBA Rankings? on Technorati.