Rankings: What They Can and Can't Tell You About a Business School

MBA rankings aren't everything, but they can be a useful tool if you know what they measure and what their limitations are

Publishers know that people cannot resist Top 10 or Top 100 lists. People drawn to business school are especially prone to peek at them. Perhaps it's all those spreadsheets and executive summaries we are used to. We like condensed information. We like competition.

So when it comes to b-school rankings, what's wrong with indulging our curiosity? Sure, we've all heard that rankings are "not everything", but getting an MBA is a serious investment of time and money. Anything that can give us at-a-glance information about things like job placement, salaries, and school reputation is bound to get our attention.

Like with all forms of university rankings, there are those who say that business school rankings are not to be trusted, their methodologies are unreliable. And besides, reading different rankings can be downright confusing. How can Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, for example, place in the Top 6 in three major rankings, but rank only 19th in another?

The key is knowing that all the major rankings use different criteria to measure business schools. Also keep in mind that some rankings are published every two years (rather than annually), and that some rank business schools globally (rather than just US MBA programs). All of these factors help explain the sometimes striking differences between the rankings.

Most MBA ranking publications send out some kind of survey every year or two. Each year, for example,The Economist surveys business schools along with thousands of students and alumni about career opportunities, quality of faculty, salaries, and networking opportunities. The bestselling U.S. News & World Report measures the quality, placement success, and quality of students at US business schools by collecting feedback from b-school deans and assessments from corporate recruiters.

Business Week conducts surveys of both students and corporate recruiters, but also calculates "intellectual capital" by looking at faculty publications in academic and mainstream journals. Meanwhile, The Financial Times publishes an annual global ranking of full-time MBA programs that weighs factors like salaries, alumni satisfaction, job placement, and the diversity of students and faculty.

Some other rankings use simpler criteria. The Wall Street Journal asks corporate recruiters their opinions of business schools based on around 20 attributes. The biennial Forbes rankings measures only "return on investment" offered by business schools by looking at how sharply salaries rise in the years following graduation.

A few national and regional rankings also exist. The Times and The Guardian, for example, both publish annual rankings of top business programs in the United Kingdom. Business Today published a list of the "India's Best B-Schools" in 2006. The Financial Times also ranks European Masters in Management programs, along with Executive MBA (EMBA) and distance learning programs.

Other publications break it down even further. The Princeton Review publishes 11 different lists of business schools, none of which reflect overall quality, but rather the best-in-class in categories like "Toughest to Get Into", "Greatest Opportunity for Women", and "Most Family Friendly". U.S. News & World Report publishes rankings of various b-school specialties, such as finance, marketing, accounting, and non-profit management programs. In one of the more specialist rankings, the biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey ranks business schools that integrate social and environmental stewardship into their curricula and research.

Usually, however, the editors of these publications are the first to admit that their rankings are just a tool—not the only factor that prospective students should consider when deciding on where to apply. They know that this decision is often informed by other personal factors, such as your budget, timeline, and geographic preferences. Most rankings offer little guidance on these issues. And sometimes a b-school's world-class focus in a particular area of business or management, say, Asian Business, might not be reflected in its overall ranking.

Finally, there are many people who will not apply to top-tier or even second-tier schools. Perhaps they are not confident their undergraduate grades, GMAT scores, or work experience would get them into Harvard or INSEAD. Perhaps there are other reasons. But what if that smaller business school you're considering does not appear on Business Week's (or anyone's) Top 100? In this case, you will have to do more of your own research to determine if going there would be worth your time and money.

A publication timetable of major full-time MBA rankings:

  • Forbes - Business School Ranking (biennial): October
  • Businessweek full-time MBA, part-time MBA, Executive MBA (biennial): October 
  • The Economist - Which MBA? Ranking (annual): October
  • The Financial Times - Global MBA Ranking (annual): January 
  • The Financial Times - Online MBA Ranking (annual): March
  • The Financial Times - Executive MBA Ranking (annual): October
  • U.S. News & World Report (annual): January

Links to MBA Rankings

Photo: RosettesSpain / Creative Commons (cropped and rotated)

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