How Meaningful Are MBA Program Rankings?

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The MBA is the most popular graduate academic degree. It is sought by thousands of students throughout the world. It is not surprising, therefore that MBA programs are examined to determine which ones are best. One of the most eagerly awaited ranking of MBA programs is that by Bloomberg’s Business Week, but other periodicals, including Forbes, US News and World Report, and The Wall Street Journal publish lists of MBA programs that show how some of the schools offering the degree rank against one another.

The published rankings have been accomplished in a variety of ways, often in different ways by the same publication from one issue to the next. The rankings are obtained by surveying or interviewing deans of business schools, student recruiters of companies that hire MBA graduates,

employers, graduates themselves, or combinations of these and other sources.

Early rankings of business schools focused on a dozen or so of well-known large Ivy League and state universities whose reputations had already been well established. They tended to ignore hundreds of other respectable MBA programs. As time progressed, the rankings were expanded beyond the well-known programs to include twenty or more schools, and some rankings now include separate lists that rank the top fifty programs or top one hundred. Still, the focus is on a list of a dozen or so schools that are considered top-tier.

It is not surprising, given the selection methods, that mostly the same group of schools appear in most rankings, although not necessarily in the same order. The lists virtually always include schools like Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Pennsylvania’s Wharton, MIT, UC Berkeley and other well-known names. Also not surprising is that these schools receive hundreds of applications from qualified students and they have to reject about 90 percent of them. Interestingly, one study, by Dr. Martin Schatz* showed that if schools are ranked simply by the GMAT scores of the incoming class of MBA students plus starting salary of graduates, the list is very similar to the rankings achieved by expensive surveys and interviews conducted by the periodicals that publish rankings.

But what do the rankings really mean? Does it matter that Berkeley is #3 one year, #5 the next, and #2 a year later? Or that Stanford is #2 in Business Week but only #5 in another publication? The fact is that Wharton excels in finance, MIT excels in quantitative courses, and Harvard excels in using the case method of teaching. Each school has strengths and weaknesses. Instead of looking for the top schools to which a prospective student can apply, it may be better to look at rankings that focus on characteristics that are important to the applicant.

One source of rankings looks at the top 40 MBA programs ranked according to individual characteristics such as GMAT score of students, GPA of students, salary earned by graduates, selectivity of the program (number of applicants rejected), number of recruiters visiting the schools, and a ranking based on weights assigned to criteria that are most used by prospective students searching for MBA programs that fit them. The site explains that the rankings it provides on each individual criterion has to be carefully interpreted and not taken at face value.

*Schatz, Martin, “What’s Wrong With MBA Ranking Surveys?, Management Research News, 1993, pp. 15-18.

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