Turning the Tables: Ranking the MBA Rankings

by John A. Byrne on

Forbes says the full-time MBA program at the University of Stanford is best. BusinessWeek say it’s the University of Chicago. U.S. News & World Report has yet another answer: Harvard Business School and Stanford in a dead tie. Say what you will about the lack of consensus on what constitutes the best MBA program in the U.S., but at least three different areas of the country—east, west and mid-west—can claim a No. 1 business school. Meantime, British-based publications seem to prefer MBA-granting institutions not based in the U.S. at all. Until this year, The Economist claimed the best school in the world is IESE in Spain. Now The Economist seems to agree with BusinessWeek that the best MBA program is at  Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The Financial Times begs to differ, preferring London Business School in its backyard. When The Wall Street Journal did an annual ranking, it often put Dartmouth’s Tuck School at the top.

Or just take the ranking of any prominent school at random and puzzle over the disparities among them: One of the finest business institutions in the world is the University of California’s Anderson School in Los Angeles. Yet, The Economist ranks it 50th behind Boston University. BusinessWeek ranks UCLA’s business school 14th, U.S. News & World Report gives it a 15th rank, and the Financial Times puts it at 33.

How is it possible that the five major rankings of business schools all have different winners at the top? How can they rank a single school, such as UCLA, so differently? Chalk it up to the differing ways each publication cranks out its list of the best.  The different methodologies employed for these rankings have as much if not more to do with where the schools place rather than the actual quality of the institution or the MBA experience.

The general problem with most rankings is that they measure what is easy to count, largely statistics on average GMATs and GPAs, starting salaries and bonuses, rather than what really matters. The latter is harder to get at, but essentially what is more important is whether you think the cost of the degree is worth the time and effort. Was the teaching quality superb? Did you learn as much from your fellow students as you did from the faculty? Did the coursework prepare you for a successful career? Do you feel the alumni network will help you throughout your professional life? Did you create friends who you will keep for the rest of your life? Did the degree enrich you far beyond the monetary rewards? Those are questions that few rankings tend to measure, yet those are the important questions.

By searching the web, you’ll find lots of other rankings besides these five major rankings. (The Wall Street Journal stopped ranking full-time MBA programs in 2007.) Ignore them. Often, they’re put together by people with an axe to grind against the big five or by others who are trying to sell you something. The theory is simple: If you don’t like these results, you put together your own ranking. That’s been done by faculty who want to reward academic research over teaching quality and MBA salaries, and that’s been done by consultants or others who are clamoring for attention to sell you something. As imperfect and flawed as the five major rankings are, they represent legitimate and good faith efforts by conscientious journalists who cover higher education day in and day out. They are looking for what they perceive to be the best ways to measure the quality of a business school education.

Which leads us to an inevitable question: How would you rank the rankings? First, an admission: I created BusinessWeek’s ranking 22 years ago. At the time, the BusinessWeek list was the first major MBA ranking and its approach was unique. BusinessWeek ranked the top MBA programs by surveying recent graduates and corporate recruiters. We asked the questions that had rarely been asked before. A few examples: “Did the professors convey enthusiasm for what they taught?” “In classes taken with popular or distinguished professors, how would you rank their accessibility after class?” ”Were you given a way of thinking or approaching problems that will serve you over the long haul?” “Did you have the feeling that your teachers were at the leading edge of knowledge in their fields?” “What percentage of your classmates would you have liked to have as friends?” These are questions that get far closer to the quality of the MBA experience than a median GMAT score for an accepted applicant. Until the BusinessWeek survey debuted, rankings relied primarily on the opinions of B-school deans, faculty, or top executives who were asked to name the top programs—even though they often had only indirect knowledge of many of the schools—or merely ranked schools on available statistical data.

That first BusinessWeek ranking in 1988 upset the traditional order of things. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School beat out both Harvard and Stanford. Dartmouth scored high, taking sixth place. Yale, often in previous Top 20 lists, failed to make the ranking because of dramatically poor grades from recent graduates. Over the past 22 years, through 11 separate rankings by BusinessWeek, Kellogg has claimed the number one spot the most, five times; Wharton is second with four No. 1 rankings by BusinessWeek, and Chicago’s Booth School of Business is next, having won the top spot twice, in the last two consecutive polls.

Many years have obviously passed since I had any involvement in the rankings and I left BusinessWeek’s employ at the end of 2009. Through all those years, however, I’ve maintained a curious interest in the world of business education. I’ve visited the campuses of well over 100 business schools. I’ve interviewed hundreds of deans, faculty, and students. I’ve also studied the core competition. Here’s my two cents on how the best stack up against each other.

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  • MBAGrad

    Does anyone know when the new Forbes ranking will be published?

  • Matty

    All of their biennial rankings come out in August of odd numbered years, so I assume we can expect the next one this August.

  • http://mba.americaeconomia.com Andrés Almeida

    Dear Poets and Quants:

    Congratulations for this story. That is very useful for us, AméricaEconoméa, the most important business magazine in Latin America.

    Since 15 years, we have been ranking the best Business Schools in Latin America, and a few years a go we also started doing the ranking of the best Global Schools.

    You can see our work here.

    I am AméricaEconomía’s MBA & Executive Education Channel editor. We publish daily news and articles with trends and perspectives to the latin american MBA industry.

    If you want, contact me to explore some colaboration ways.

    Best Regards,

  • Jennie Walker

    Thanks for the article. It has several good points. Your point about the rankings not focusing on actual student experience especially resonated with me. I was a little surprised later in the article, though, with the remarks about diversity and language acquisition being meaningless. Diversity experiences and cultural skill building are quite significant in student experiences specifically and in developing our future leaders generally. This is substantiated by a comprehensive analysis of the global leadership development literature and student development in MBA programs that I have done for my dissertation.

  • DannyS

    At the core of the shortcoming of all MBA ranking methodologies is their focus on short-term results. While it is understandable why an applicant may be concerned about the first job he or she will take our of business school, no one makes the investment to earn an MBA just for that first job offer. Every MBA applicant should be interested in the long-term benefits and returns that come from earning an MBA from a specific school. A publication which is interested in tapping into those sorts of benefits should be surveying graduates 10, 15, or 20 years out of business school.

  • Bill

    Business week is a garbage ranking. It is based on “employer feedback” reviews. The results make perfect sense …. Deutsche Bank, BofA, etc prefer Chicago grads over Harvard/Stanford. (Because nobody from Harvard/Stanford accept their offers/mediocre salary). Does that really mean Chicago is a better program?

    In the end, people are most interested in the school which has the smartest group of classmates (low admit ratio/high yield), and provides the best exit opportunities.

    Thus, any ranking which doesn’t start off with:
    1.) Stanford
    2.) HBS
    3.) Wharton
    4/5/6/7.) MIT/Kellogg/Chicago/Columbia

    …. is inherently flawed.

  • Dr.J.Sarkar

    Admission process of some of the top business schools in USA is flawed.Academic background,experience profile(kind of reputed company,salary etc.), GMAT score,and Interview of the candidate must be the main criteria as these cannot be manipulated.Things like Eassy,Recomendation letters etc. can be manipulated by well connected candidates in many countries.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/llavelle/ Louis Lavelle

    Bill, the recruiter survey is only part of the BW methodology (45%). The other parts are the student survey (45%) and the intellectual capital measure (10%). The only inherent flaw in our ranking is that we haven’t quite figured out a way to get people like you to stop complaining about it. Cheers.

    Louis Lavelle
    Associate Editor
    Bloomberg Businessweek

  • Matty

    The real inherent flaw, IMO, was perfectly stated by John Byrne in the “Cons” section –> “a polling sample problem.”

    While I can’t say exactly what caused a school like SMU to beat out names like Tuck, NYU, Yale etc., it seems that you’re relying on completely different sets of recruiters while failing to weight which recruiters are more “important.”

    How do you determine which recruiters should have a bigger say? A higher salary offered? Location in places to which MBA grads tend to flock (NYC, Chicago etc)? Or maybe rather than weighting recruiters, you simply survey many more from those higher-paying firms relative to elsewhere.

    I’m not a polling expert and certainly don’t play one on TV, but its rather obvious that the BW ranking does not line up with reality. Its a shame because BW is such a widely referenced ranking, as it throws a complete curveball into one’s MBA research.

    Maybe its because I simply couldn’t hit a curveball, but my advice is to be patient and wait for the fastball (US News & FT).

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/llavelle/ Louis Lavelle

    We survey hundreds of recruiters every year, and use three separate recruiter surveys for each ranking (2010, 2008, 2006 for the 2010 ranking). The recruiters are asked which schools produce the best grads and their choices are weighted based on the number of MBAs they hire. In SMU’s case, the recruiters who DID hire Cox grads liked them a lot, and that counts for more than the fact that they hired relatively few. That’s the reason for the apparent disconnect between SMU’s poor placement numbers and high recruiter ranking.

    You seem like a pretty reasonable person Matty, but you’re falling into the same trap as every other rankings critic. When a ranking doesn’t line up exactly with every other ranking–or “reality,” whatever that is–you declare the ranking flawed instead of questioning your own assumptions. So let me ask you: why would you expect any ranking to be identical to any other ranking, when they do not share the same methodology? If one ranking of cars is based on price, another is based on speed, and another is based on defects reported by owners, would you expect all three to come to the same conclusion? I didn’t think so.


  • Embarrassing…(@Louis)


    “We haven’t quite figured out a way to get people like you to stop complaining about it.”

    Wow. Even if Matty was / is painfully misinformed, is this your version of professional etiquette? Your reasoning is sound but the delivery is awful.

    Stick to Bloomberg. Cheers.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/llavelle/ Louis Lavelle

    It was a joke!

  • Sean

    “….It’s just not even credible to think that London Business School can give you a better MBA education than Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, or Northwestern…” – There we go again with the preconceived notions and the die-hard bias towards US institutions. H/S/W are all fantastic business education institutions, but it is a pretty bold (and arguably unfounded) statement to make when one says that a prospective student can’t get a better education at a non-US school like LBS or Insead than she would at one of your favoured top US schools. In today’s globalized world, schools like LBS and Insead offer a far better understanding and connectivity to the global business community than some of those very same top US institutions can claim. Also, if one wants to make this website unbiased, independent and truly credible, then the need to make such overarching statements (without facts) should be done away with….


  • Admit

    I completely agree with Sean’s comment. Both LBS and INSEAD offer top notch educations and can easily compete with Harvard/Wharton/Stanford. While there is an obvious favor for US schools on this website, one should not overlook the high performing international schools. Both LBS and INSEAD are far more international than any US school could ever be. This diversity allows the students to get a truly global education without a US-centric outlook on business.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=253211&locale=en_US&trk=tab_pro Bela Barner

    Who makes the best automobile?

    The answer depends on how the individual wants to use it. Right? And whether you are shopping for an SUV for your camping trips, a mini-van for your toting around your offspring, or a sporty chick-magnet for your mid-life crisis, you’ll have lots of choices.

    I don’t see B-school rankings as much different. It’s pretty safe to assume that individuals attend B-school to enhance their careers, but in what precise way? Further their ascent up the ladder as a “company” man/woman? Leave consulting to get into I-banking? Acquire a professional network and make enough contacts to secure capital for that startup?

    In today’s world of hyper market segmentation, I am not sure any single ranking methodology will do.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne


    Very good point. So if student satisfaction really matters to you, you’ll buy into the BusinessWeek ranking. If all you really care about is return on investment, Forbes is the one. If you’re keen on getting a sense for how the international schools stack up, then The Financial Times would be your survey. If you want a simple overview of a school’s quality, U.S. News is the one.

  • TonyW

    The student survey is very open to being “gamed.” If you were a student at good old Acme Business School, and you knew that your employment options and starting salaries depended to some substantial degree on the rating of your school, wouldn’t you consider rating the school as better than perfect in every survye category so as to improve your employment prospects? Another potential source of bias concerns the nature of the students who choose to attend different schools. It is quite possible that those attending Harvard are sophisticates who demand the best, who went to Harvard expecting to have the best possible professors for each and every course, and who would be disappointed if they did not have the most famous and pedagogically able professor for each course. Students who go to Indiana University, in the unpretentious town of Bloomington in the middle of America’s corn belt, might have very different, very reasonable expectations. Thus, ratings by these different groups of students might not be readily comparable.

    The employer survey suffers from a similar potential problem. Employers hiring from Harvard and Indiana might be hiring for very different positions and expecting very different people from each school. They might pay Harvard graduates $150,000 and expect them soon to be running a region, whereas they might hire an Indiana graduate for $80,000 and expect him to be a solid contributor who will take twice as long to get a promotion as the Harvard graduates. Once again, are employer’s ratings of the schools truly comparable?

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/llavelle/ Louis Lavelle

    @TonyW: I’m not sure I’m buying this argument. You’re correct, students might be inclined to give their school great ratings for the reason you state, but (1) we have statisticians review the findings to make sure they don’t, (2) students everywhere have the same inclination, in effect canceling each other out, and (3) if this were true we’d never get a negative comment, and we do. A lot.

    As for mismatched expectations, you may be right that students (and recruiters) expect more out of schools like Harvard, but they should expect more out of schools like Harvard. (Harvard charges more, for one thing.) If this really put schools like Harvard at such a disadvantage, they wouldn’t be so highly ranked year after year after year–students and recruiters would get fed up and before you know it we’d all be wondering why Harvard was suddenly ranked #413.

    If this were a real problem–if Indiana really does enjoy an advantage over Harvard–I’d be curious to know how exactly you would fix it. Maybe grade student and recruiter satisfaction on a curve?

    Louis Lavelle
    Associate Editor
    Bloomberg Businessweek

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/universityexternado/ Seamus


    I work as Dean´s assistant of the Faculty of Business Administration in the Externado University of Colombia, a regionally prominent business school. We are making inquiries about the Forbes rankings as to when and how they are conducted as we hope to participate in the international categories, although I noticed they only published the top 11 on their website. You say they publish the rankings in August? Do you know if they make availble the rankings of other schools beyond the first 11? Or do you perhaps know where I might find this information? Thanks so much.

    Seamus Dufurrena
    Dean´s Assistant
    Externado University

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    I’m not really certain because there have been a lot of changes at Forbes since the last publication of the rankings. I’ll try to check in with them and find out.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/universityexternado/ Seamus

    I appreciate it John, thanks.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/universityexternado/ Seamus

    Louis Lavelle,

    You may have seen my comment left for Matty. I’m not actually participating in the rankings debate but am trying to obtain information as to how to submit my school´s information to be considered for rankings. I´ve looked into to Bloomberg Businessweek’s rankings method and their current lists of ranked schools in International Schools and Executive Education categories. Again, the lists are short and only include 20 schools. Is there a more extensive list available? We would like to participate in these categories, especially in Executive Education as we feel confident in our ability to compete in this area. Any tips or info you can provide is appreciated. Thanks

    Seamus Dufurrena
    Dean´s Assistant – Faculty of Business Administration
    Externado University

  • Jimmy

    Poets & Quants does not consider the QS MBA Ranking where my favorite program (UCLA) has its best ranking (number 9). Too bad ! If you would add it, UCLA would gain 2 or 3 seats in your Top 100 average ranking !

  • Nearly Nubile

    It’ll be easier to take the BW rankings more seriously if you ranked schools like INSEAD, IMD and LBS in the same ranking as the American schools. These schools globally, and often even in the United States, are regarded just as well or better than, say, Tuck or Duke for sure. This is 2012, not 1999. 

  • PaedoWhey

    Re: FT, I agree that LBS should not be ranked about HBS, Stanford, and Wharton. I do think that it offers a better MBA experience than Kellogg though (and I think many would agree with me).

    I think the current ranking of 4 makes sense…some will disagree with my assessment – that is fine. I had applied to b school back in the day (2 years ago): was admitted to Kellogg, Fuqua, Tuck, LBS, INSEAD, and Columbia. Was denied at HBS and wait listed at Wharton.

    While I chose to not attend b school after all since I made it directly into management consulting through my own professional connections, I would have picked London over the other schools that I was admitted to. The only school that I would have undeniably picked over LBS was Harvard, but who wouldn’t make that choice?

    FT ranking LBS number 1 is a little silly though – completely agree with article in that respect. Number 4 is justified as a ranking though. I would actually put a tie for number 4 between LBS, MIT, and Columbia…

    At the end of the day, who cares though? All schools will get you to that next step if you maximize the opportunity, alumni network, and prestige of the school….

  • PaedoWhey

    Sorry correction, tie for 4 with MIT, Columbia, AND Booth…

  • Jesse

    When I think about all the various rankings, I have a select group that represents the best of the best globally. Those elite schools are: HBS, Stanford GSB, Wharton, London Business School, INSEAD, ESADE, University of Cape Town GSB, IIM Ahmedabad, CIEBS, and Australian Graduate School of Management. I don’t even want to rank these schools among each other because I think these schools encompass the best of the best from the various regions in the world. This is the top 10 GLOBALLY and envelopes the cream of the crop everywhere – not just the US. Many people choose to stay in their home countries for one reason or another. This top 10 takes that into account…

  • Jesse

    Sorry not ESADE, I meant IPADE – the one in central/south america!!

  • Neil

    I like this ranking – makes complete sense to me! Nice post!

  • LC

    “The US owns the world, or it takes, and bombs”? “Accept it”? I think you should accept instead that people (Americans and non-Americans) won’t accept that.
    Otherwise the US would be a worldwide dictator and I don’t think it is the case.
    And I believe in democracy, thank you very much.
    What I am sure about is, if someone like you was a student in my MBA class, I would ask the MBA program to kick him/her out. Failing that, I would leave the MBA program and move to a better school. Bye bye.

  • SkiBowl

    LBS is easily top 5 in the world…but not above Harvard or Stanford…I’d put it on par with Wharton…

    The one reason why I hesitate is because LBS GMAT is a little low – like 700 or something while HSW are in the 720s/30s. I thought about it more and think that part of it has to do with the number of foreigners at LBS…the verbal section was tough for me, and I’m American; I can only imagine how tough it is for non-english speakers…

    That being said, I would have gone to any of these schools but didn’t get in to any of them :(

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