Most Reliable & Valid MBA Ranking?

by John A. Byrne on

Professor Dawn Iacobucci

Professor Dawn Iacobucci

If Dawn Iacobbuci were a prospective MBA applicant instead of an accomplished professor, the MBA ranking she would most definitely consult before applying to business schools would be the annual list published by U.S. News & World Report.

Iacobbuci’s preference isn’t without deep study or consideration. As senior associate dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen School and a marketing professor who has also taught at Kellogg, Wharton and Owen, she has just completed a major study of the reliability and validity of three major rankings: U.S. News, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and The Financial Times.

The professor, who does not have an MBA degree, looked at every full-time MBA ranking ever published by those three publications: 13 separates lists from BusinessWeek which began ranking schools in 1988 and has published updated rankings every two years; 15 rankings from The Financial Times, which began its list nearly ten years after BusinessWeek, and 27 lists from U.S. News & World Report which started rating MBA programs annually in 1987.

Iacobbuci prefers U.S. News largely because she believes its ranking has shown greater reliability over the years and has greater validity. Her number crunching also found that every rank improvement toward the top on U.S. News yielded an additional $908.03 more on average for the school’s graduates in their first post-MBA job, significantly more than BusinessWeek‘s $605.27 or The Financial Times‘ $377.58.

“I would look at U.S. News as a result of this research,” she concludes, “partly due to objectivity of the measures and components that go into the ranking. They are less easily gamed. The Financial Times is pitched to favor the more international schools, and the BusinessWeek student poll has a good deal of variability to it. You don’t want to see schools slipping up and down and all over the place. If there is that much variance, what good can there possibly be to the ranking?”


From an academic viewpoint, variability is bad if you’re looking for consistency from one ranking to another, or as this academic puts it, “The simplest expression of reliability is that of consistency.” And it’s true that wide swings in a school’s rank over a short-period of time tend to lack credibility. That’s why Poets&Quants routinely points out the biggest changes in every ranking which tend to occur further down each list when the differences in the underlying data are slim at best.

Iacobbuci, however, focuses less on this issue than the variability in the student satisfaction poll used by BusinessWeek. “Comparing across media,” she writes, “we see that BusinessWeek varied quite a bit over its first 15 years or so, and it has become stable since approximately 2004. We can laud the U.S. News as yielding the most stable results, year to year, even from its inception.

From an applicant perspective, however, measuring the subjective opinions of the latest graduating class—which is what BusinessWeek tries to do every two years—can yield valuable information about the quality of the full MBA experience. It’s not unreasonable to assume, for example, that a school can fall down on critical elements of what makes a top-ranked MBA worthwhile, from the ability of a school to get students the jobs they want to the quality of the teaching in the classroom. Those things tend to be variable–and important to applicants.


U.S. News                            BusinessWeek                   Financial Times
 1. Harvard  1. Chicago (Booth)  1. Harvard
 1. Stanford  2. Harvard  2. Stanford
 3. UPenn (Wharton)  3. Wharton  3. Wharton
 4. MIT (Sloan)  4. Stanford  4. London
 4. Northwestern (Kellogg)  5. Northwestern  5. Columbia
 6. Chicago (Booth)  6. Duke (Fuqua)  6. INSEAD
 7. UC-Berkeley (Haas)  7. Cornell (Johnson)  7. IESE
 8. Columbia  8. Michigan (Ross)  8. Hong Kong UST
 9. Dartmouth (Tuck)  9. MIT  9. MIT
10. NYU (Stern) 10. Virginia (Darden) 10. Chicago

Source: Latest rankings from U.S. News (2013), BusinessWeek (2012), and The Financial Times (2013) of full-time MBA programs

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  • fidel305

    Or is it the increase in average earnings that in part gives rise to the increase in ranking? Folks just keep violating that cardinal rule of stats. Correllation does not equal causation

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