Why MBA Rankings are Coming Under Fire

They’re a useful shortcut for prospective students, but some rankings are being cancelled and others are rethinking their methodologies

MBA rankings are seen as a shortcut for helping prospective students find the best programs, but they are coming under fire. A growing chorus of business schools are questioning how the media ranks the world’s top MBA courses, arguing that they over-emphasize graduate salaries and do not reward programs that teach responsible capitalism.

According to a 2022 survey by the education services companies Manhattan Prep and Kaplan, a significant proportion of admissions officers think that MBA rankings have lost their luster and that it would be a positive development if they no longer existed. Some rankings have indeed been axed.

The Economist magazine last year ended its major Which MBA? ranking, following criticism over the volatility of last year’s list. Some schools were puzzled by their placement, with some formerly high-ranking institutions falling deeply down the ranking. In 2021, several elite schools declined to participate, with the list published several weeks late because of delays in collecting data amid the pandemic.

The magazine’s decision also comes as the number of rankings has expanded greatly in the past several years, even as concerns have grown over the methodologies that put them together. Many media outlets are rethinking their approach, with the Financial Times in the process of revising its system to capture how schools are emphasizing responsible management alongside profit.

Meanwhile, some business schools have come under fire for reporting false data to game the rankings, hurting the system’s credibility. Temple University’s Fox School of Business admitted that it miss-reported data to US News, which led to the jailing of its former dean Moshe Porat, who was sentenced to 14 months in prison last year.

Some rankings over-emphasize MBA salaries 

One of the most contentious elements of existing rankings is the salary levels that graduates obtain. Prospective students want to know how much they could make on graduation when choosing a course, but schools claim the emphasis on salary detracts from other criteria.

“One of my biggest issues with rankings is the disproportionate emphasis they place on salary,” says Rebecca Loades, director of MBA programs at ESMT Berlin. “Sure, it’s an important consideration, but studying for an MBA is more than that; it’s a way to increase opportunities, and transform lives beyond annual income.”

Even so, given they are an instrument that attracts attention and impacts student choice, she says rankings are unlikely to go away. “Rankings sell,” says Loades. “With so many business schools and MBA programs out there, they are also a useful shortcut to help identify a smaller set of programs for further exploration.”

Yet among the admissions officers surveyed at 117 full-time MBA programs across the US, 37 percent believe that business school rankings have lost some of their prestige, while 29 percent disagreed. Additionally, 34 percent of business schools think it would be good for both and applicants for MBA rankings to no longer exist, while 30 percent disagreed.

“For prospective students, our advice is to look at the rankings when deciding where to apply and enroll, as they serve as a useful aggregate of important stats like post-graduate job numbers and starting salaries, but also strongly consider which schools seem like the best fit for you personally and for your professional goals,” says Stacey Koprince, director of content and curriculum for Manhattan Prep.

GMAT or GRE scores are not everything 

Each ranking has a slightly different methodology. For example, 40 percent of the Financial Times ranking comes from alumni salaries three years after completing the program, whereas 45 percent of the QS ranking is driven by a school’s reputation among academics and employers.

Prashant Malaviya, vice-dean for academic programs at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, does not see rankings disappearing altogether, but he expects ongoing conversations about how these lists are developed.

“The rankings have been slow to adjust to changes in the marketplace,” Malaviya says. “In order to effectively report on school performance and give prospective students a clear guide for their search process, rankings must accurately reflect the industry in its current form.”

He highlights the changes in GMAT and GRE entrance test scores. For several years now, he says schools have de-empathized these scores in the MBA application process, or waived testing as an admissions requirement altogether.

“Rankings that use these scores as a significant weight in their methodology may signify to prospective students that admissions scores are the only indicator,” says Malaviya. US News uses reported GMAT and GRE scores for 25 percent of its MBA ranking.

Malaviya also calls for a more standardized evaluation of schools across the numerous MBA rankings. “The volatility of rankings year-over-year minimizes their credibility and reliability, which in turn confuses prospective students,” he adds. “Greater consistency and transparency in ranking methodologies would help make these outlets more reliable.”

This is important, because rankings have an influence on MBA course design, says Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant who advises prospective students. “Every MBA program is looking to sustain or improve to remain competitive relative to other MBA programs,” she says. “It’s not a main driver for how MBA programs evolve, but rankings are a marketing channel that is watched and evaluated by all stakeholders.”

Rankings are ultimately a business, she adds, and a significant driver of traffic to media outlets. “With the recent layoff announcements across industries including media and a move towards more efficient business operations, it’s possible that rankings may become streamlined or eliminated because they are resource-intensive,” says Blackman.

But user interest remains strong, given the considerable financial sacrifices of an MBA degree. Ultimately, rankings are a useful first step, but should not be used as the sole criterion by which an MBA program is selected.

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