Headlines screamed in the MBA world last week: Harvard and Wharton dropped in the Bloomberg Businessweek MBA rankings! Harvard “plunged” to sixth place, and Wharton “slid” to eighth. Did the earth stop turning? Did the sun refuse to shine? No. But more magazines were sold, old and new data were analyzed to find the cause for this impossible “fact,” and more “breaking news” articles are now taking up space in MBA land. This is the big question: how can this survey possibly be valid? Take a look back in history, and you’ll see that every year, whenever a ranking places a school other than Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton at the top of their list, it will be questioned and criticized as to its authenticity, transparency, and validity. Do you really think a program can change that much in a year? Not unless something really catastrophic has happened. The rankings “experts” simply change the value they give to certain aspects in the survey to keep things interesting for their readers. This year I couldn’t be happier to see Tuck and Darden rise up the ranks. Both are exceptional programs and deserve to be recognized. But they were both still exceptional when they were lower ranked too. And Harvard, Stanford and Wharton will still be at the top of the pack regardless of their position in the rankings.
For business school deans and admissions officers, the annual B-school rankings are cause for either joyful celebration or agonizing confrontations with university chancellors, students, and alumni. For the rest of the world, they’re a nonevent.
No matter which side you fall on, there will always be arguments about how the ratings were calculated. How many points were given to GMAT scores or to citations from faculty articles? How much weight is given to the diversity of the class or to the opinions of hiring companies?
In more global rankings, such as the one published by the Financial Times, one question is how can one honestly assess the value of a relatively newly minted European or Asian MBA program relative to a long-established U.S. program? How does one evaluate “learning rank” for a one-year program versus a two-year program? And can overall compensation be fairly compared between a program with 1,000 graduates and one with only 150 graduates?
Bloomberg Businessweek has been publishing MBA rankings since 1988, with the Financial Times starting in 1999. U.S. News & World Report, The Economist, and Forbes all publish surveys, and for a short time, even The Wall Street Journal hopped on the bandwagon. Now, every year, it seems a new ranking is launched. Each one claims to have the best methodology to rank the more than 5,000 business schools, and each one swears it is different from all the other rankings.
So, what use are the rankings to you as a prospective MBA student, and how do you know which one(s) to trust? All the MBA “gurus” will tell you to look at the methodology and the metrics used. But that isn’t always easy to investigate – and who has that much time, anyway?
For my money, the only valid evaluation would look simply at job placements and return on investment. That is why you are pursuing an MBA, isn’t it? To advance your career?
Do the folks with the highest GMAT scores or best GPAs get the best jobs? Not necessarily. The student who has a personality, a wide range of interests, sufficient training in a functional area, and the drive to succeed is the one who will be able to best present themselves to a future employer. Whatever MBA program you attend, you will learn the basics of each business function, and you will go on to focus on a specialized area of interest. It all depends on what you put into the experience, not the school’s ranking. Yes, people have flunked out of Harvard and Wharton; some individuals with an MBA from Columbia or Stanford might not even land an “MBA” job when they graduate. Maybe they were not at the right school for them, or maybe they thought that getting a degree from a top-ranked school means a job would just land in their lap. That’s not how it works.
Your job as an MBA candidate is to look closely at many different programs – check out their employment pages, identify the courses they offer in your area of interest, and above all, talk to students and alumni to find out what the personality of the school is like and if you would be a good fit there. If they don’t want to talk to you, I would consider that a red flag. If you are hoping to work with a renowned professor, be sure that the professor actually teaches in the program. At many schools, the acclaimed researchers do only that – research. You might have classes taught by a PhD student. Ask questions!
There is a right school for everyone, and for you, that is the school where you will succeed. Sure, look at the rankings to get started, but don’t let them limit your choices. Years ago, before there were rankings, people attended a regional school that was nearest to their home, and many of them went on to become highly effective leaders. And as surprising as it might be, many CEOs do not have an elite degree. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to read about the research of Professor David Kang in the Poets&Quants article “How Many Fortune 500 CEOs have MBAs?”
His findings might astonish you, as they did Professor Kang:
“Of the 2023 Fortune 100 CEOs, only 11.8% attended an Ivy as undergrads, and only 9.8% hold an Ivy League MBA. Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, the top company on Fortune’s list, got his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas and his MBA from the University of Tulsa. Exxon CEO Darren Woods attended Texas A&M University and Northwestern University, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella went to India’s Manipal Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Of the 20 CEOs at the nation’s biggest companies by revenue, only one attended an Ivy as an undergrad—Amazon’s Andy Jassy, an alum of Harvard University.”
A Fortune article on Professor Kang’s research further states, “Moreover, 14 of the 20 CEOs went to public colleges. Apple’s Tim Cook graduated from Auburn University, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren
Buffett graduated from the University of Nebraska, and McKesson’s Brian S. Tyler graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz.”
So what happens if you don’t get into one of the M7 schools? Think about it—out of 5,000 business schools in the world, any school that lands in the top 500 should be considered! The end result is determined by what you put into and take from your learning experience. If you are motivated and excited about learning and making an impact, you will succeed, with or without an MBA. Your performance and talent will take you to the top. But to reiterate, look at the school’s employment statistics, see what companies recruit there, and above all, talk to students and alumni from the program before you make your final decision on where to apply.
Personally, I believe that the MBA is the single most valuable degree one can have, because you can do so much with it in any industry, whether it be manufacturing, technology, or art and theater. And of course, your career trajectory will move much faster too. So use the rankings as a starting point but not as the ultimate decision-making point. In a smaller school or a lower-ranked school, you might have to exert a little more effort in networking to find your ideal job, but remember that every MBA program is also ranked on the percentage of graduates who have an offer of employment so the career office is just as determined as you are to help you find a job.
Dr. Christie St-John has more than 25 years of higher ed and admissions experience, including ten years in admissions at Dartmouth Tuck. She was formerly the director of MBA recruiting and admissions, director of international relations, and an adjunct faculty member at Vanderbilt University. Having also served on the board of directors of the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance and the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management, Christie has a deep knowledge of MBA and other graduate admissions. Want Christie to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!