Ranking MBA Schools and Programs

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If you’re planning to earn an MBA, then you’re likely very analytical, resourceful, and thorough. So you probably are aware that there are many rankings scales for MBA schools and programs.

But how much credence should you give any particular ranking? MBA rankings can be helpful to get a birds-eye view of what’s available and what others in the business community think. However, they can be a counterproductive distraction to students seeking the ideal program for their unique needs.

How Business Programs are Ranked

Many publications (see below for the list) publish their own rankings, with differing methodologies and criteria.

"There are basically two sets of rankings," says Gerry Keim, associate dean of the W.P. Carey MBA program at Arizona State University.

"One set depends on reputation — surveying people in business. The Wall Street Journal and Business Week gauge their rankings on recruiters’ perceptions, so schools that have been around the longest do very well because they have lots of graduates out there. We favor rankings that objectively measure how the business market responds to graduates, giving every school a chance to compete."

U.S. News & World Report‘s rankings, on the other hand, are based on peer assessments, student graduation rates, faculty-to-student ratio, school financial resources, average GMAT scores, applicant acceptance rates, and several other measures. Forbes rankings are solely evaluated by return on investment.

Other published MBA rankings evaluate factors such as: quality of instruction, faculty research productivity, admissions selectivity, student opinion, employment rates, graduates’ starting salary average, yield (percentage of students accepting admission), and financial endowment (from successful graduates’ donations).

Most rankings weigh each factor differently to determine a university or college’s ultimate composite score. The data collection processes also vary — ranging from subjective surveying of the academic community (students, graduates, and professors) to gathering hard financial data.

What Does a High Ranking Mean?

Perhaps very little, according to some in the industry.

Rankings are handy tools that give an overall view of available choices and can quantify important aspects of the program. But it’s important to understand what each scale is used.

Don’t lean too heavily on any one list. All ratings processes have weaknesses — some overlook critical factors while others are distorted with statistical anomalies.

Even the most ardent supporters of rankings scales have criticisms of the major ranking systems, and some would prefer if MBA seekers did not heed them at all.

"All rankings basically exist to sell magazines. Each has a different spin," said David R. Lampe, executive director of marketing and communication at the Harvard Business School. "By declaring a number one, two, and three, they assume all schools are alike and all students are alike. They offer no useful information to help students."

Dean Keim suggests that many rankings, particularly the subjective ratings, may lean too heavily toward well-known and established MBA programs — Wharton, MIT, Harvard, or Stanford — ignoring great business courses at schools of less renown.

These unranked or lower-ranked MBA programs might also have qualifying factors, such as small average class sizes, high GMAT scores among students, successful graduates, and notable instructors, yet simply fly under the radar of national MBA rankings.

A few simple changes, like adjusting starting salaries for cost of living, could make rankings more accurate and useful to students, Keim says.

Evaluating MBA Programs on Your Terms

No institutional ranking scale can encompass and measure every factor that you must weigh before choosing a business school.

"What really matters is a match between the student and what the school has to offer. For example, location is often critical, as is whether the school focuses on specializations or general management. Rankings disregard those important decisions," says Lampe.

"The primary attribute is job opportunities for graduates; this is the main reason most students pursue an MBA," says Keim.

Keim says that after career outlook, other large factors come into consideration, such as the size of the institution, strength in a certain business specialization, and an established network to further the future goals of graduates.

"You’ve got to ask yourself: Do you feel more comfortable with 70 to 90 students in a classroom, or do you need more personalized attention from faculty? After graduation, will you be ready for international opportunities? Are you interested in a school with links to Wall Street?" he asks.

Perhaps, then, the most important aspect in choosing an MBA program is to "know thyself". Know what drives you and what you hope to accomplish as an MBA graduate and business professional.

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