Confessions Of An MBA Ranking Guru

by John A. Byrne on

1990 coverThe year was 1988. As management editor of BusinessWeek magazine, I had just walked into the office of our editor-in-chief with the results of a 35-question survey sent to graduating MBAs at all the top U.S. business schools. I was trying to convince him to publish the first ranking of MBA programs.

For me, this was a labor of love. I crafted the focus groups of MBAs to come up with the right questions—questions that everyone considering an MBA wants answered.

Among the questions were:

* To what extent did your overall graduate experience fulfill or fail to meet your expectations of what a good business school should be?

* Do you believe your MBA was worth its total cost in time, tuition, living expenses, and lost earnings?

* Do you feel the business school has connections that can help you throughout your career?

* How did the teachers in your MBA program compare with others you have had in the past?

* In classes 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 well over the long haul?

* What percentage of your classmates would you have liked to have as friends?

In other words, these were substantive questions that got to the very heart of the MBA experience. They were the most basic questions every applicant would want answered—and still wants answered.

I created the survey on my Macintosh computer at home. I copied about 3,000 of the surveys at work, and with the help of my own family, I stuffed envelopes with the paper surveys for weeks on end. The completed surveys were returned by MBAs from the Class of 1988 at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, and every other major U.S. business school. One by one, I tallied the results.

What BusinessWeek ultimately published on the cover of the magazine would become one of the best-selling covers of all time. More importantly, though, it would become the first regularly published ranking of business schools in the world. Some 26 years later, the surveys still address the two key demographics: business school students and their prospective employers. There are now 50 questions on each graduate survey. Instead of mailing out 3,000 surveys to grads at 25 or so U.S. schools, the magazine sends nearly 18,000 to graduating MBAs at 101 academic institutions around the world. In 2000, BusinessWeek added a third component to the mix: a measurement of intellectual output by faculty at the schools, which now accounts for 10% of the ranking. But the ranking is still largely an attempt to measure customer satisfaction—not GMAT scores, selectivity, MBA pay packages, or the percentage of MBAs employed at graduation.

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  • Matt

    Cool article, thank you for sharing.

    The 1988 rankings are different, that’s for sure. Fun to see my school in the top 10. ;)

  • bwanamia

    NOBODY thought this was credible at the time because of the number 1 position you assigned to Northwestern.

  • JohnAByrne

    You’re dead wrong. I’m sure some people were puzzled by the outcome, but anyone inside the business of business education got it.

    The truth is, there were very good reasons why Northwestern came out on top back then, reasons that effectively changed the entire graduate business school industry. Kellogg was the first prominent school to interview all applicants. Most schools back then, including HBS, did no interviews at all. So Kellogg was able to pick off the most articulate and extroverted candidates who were far more likely than others in the applicant pool to immediately impress with their professional presence and likability. This was at a time when many MBAs were perceived to be arrogant and difficult to get along with when companies brought them into their organizations. To this day, it’s why the world’s top consulting firms take a higher percentage of Kellogg’s grads than at any other business school.

    Kellogg also was way ahead of the curve on collaboration and teamwork–things we take for granted today. When Kellogg’s dean described how fundamental teamwork was to the school’s culture in the late 1980s, the dean of MIT Sloan publicly said that at his school they call that cheating. That was the prevailing mindset.

    There were many other reasons for the school’s success at that time, including the fact that it was ahead of the game on executive education. Very few other schools saw exec ed as a key leverage point for their MBA programs. In fact, most other schools were pretty much nowhere on executive education as a core offering. The execs who came to Kellogg often ended up recruiting Kellogg MBAs for their organizations.

    So when you say NOBODY thought the ranking was credible, you have no idea what you are talking about.

  • bwanamia

    People “inside the business of business education” were polite about it to your face, but they rolled their eyes beyond your back. The BW rankings are still tainted by your decision in 1988 to put Northwestern in the number 1 position.

  • 2cents

    bwanamia – even without agreeing with the number next to the school name there is credible information in the rankings. BW is a popularity/satisfaction contest which seemed to hurt some of the M8 schools and frankly seems to reward new buildings (despite claims to the contrary) and schools on the ups more than it should. So while I don’t agree with the rankings at all (really, Johnson over Sloan?), I don’t think the rankings aren’t credible. It’s an opinion poll weighted on “what’s important” to BW readers, but its pretty much a lock that no one is choosing Booth over HBS or GSB today for example.

  • JackD

    I like to compare these types of disputes with the paradox posed by the cyclical real estate market. “This house is a great deal at $400k! It was worth $650k 7 years ago!” It all comes down to perceived value. If people perceive HBS to be the best school, especially because of the legacy they have enjoyed, they are going to have a problem with these rankings. The fact is, Kellogg graduates may have been more satisfied with their degree than Harvard. I am sure there are (always, at all schools) those that think the degree is a golden ticket and are in for a rude awakening when that is not the case. If Kellogg was interviewing all their students and other schools were not, they were able to shape and mold a much more dynamic class than other schools. This resulted in a better overall fit for everyone, and probably equated to a class that really got along well with each other.

    I think we are going to see a shift in rankings over the years as b-schools begin adapting to economic, behavioral, and global change. For example, Cornell’s Johnson school. Students matriculating are typically extremely passionate and are fairly confident in their decision to live in Ithaca and become a part of the Cornell brand. Being in Ithaca is probably the sole component holding Johnson back, so what happens once Roosevelt Island is completed? What if Cornell affords it’s students the option of a full time traditional MBA at the NYC campus? It’s apparent Cornell knew what was on the line when they decided to go “all in” on the project and I look forward to see how things ultimately shake out. The (no so) simple shift in demographics will ultimately translate into a much higher ranking for Johnson in the long term.

    I have to agree with 2cents that it’s probably a rare occurrence to see someone choose Booth over HBS or GSB, but in the end, people are going to motivated by what is important to them. Some will use rankings as an absolute, others will make demographics the determining factor, and others will take a more comprehensive and holistic approach when deciding what school is best for them.

    As many others have stated in the past. It’s more of a luxury than a problem to have to decide which b-school to attend when accepted within the top 15.

  • DannyH

    Now that’s a practical argument. Nowadays when you ask what makes such and such school number one and such and such other school number six, the answer is who is the most famous and can exert the most political pressure to have a ranking system engineered to reflect fame without calling it that.

  • DannyH

    If the BW rankings, or any college rankings, are tainted it’s because they have no basis. How in the world can one pretend to rank MBA programs without having completed a degree at each and every one of them?

  • Tim Weiss

    I honestly believe your heart was in the right place when you developed this survey, but this type of survey is not appropriate for this context. People are too personally invested to respond truthfully. It basically measures how important they feel this grand personal investment was and thus how much they will lie to protect it. Results of surveys like this often have a strong correlation with narcissistic personality disorder.

  • David

    The 1988 ranking shows how far certain schools have come. For instance, Chicago Booth (IMO the hottest and fastest rising b-school in the world) is not in the top 10 while Cornell, Ross, Darden, and UNC, all are. Stanford was also #9; its rise to the top has been fueled mostly by the rise of tech and Silicon Valley.

    Chicago Booth has already supplanted Wharton and is only slightly behind HBS and Stanford. It continues to attract the best students with generous merit scholarships, and its innovative flexible curriculum, superior placement, best mba faculty in the world, and the great city of Chicago, continue to work for its favor.

  • 2cents

    A lot of buzz words in that description of Booth David. The 1988 rankings where a strange journey into peer-reviewed and satisfaction-based rankings, and frankly BW still seems that way a bit today (less to do with the quality of the degree and more “perceived” quality). I’m intrigued why you might think GSB’s rise was fueled by Silicon Valley but Booth’s rise is more inherent to the school? Not saying I specifically disagree, but I’m wary of the bull with Booth

  • David

    Stanford GSB was not seen as HBS’ peer until the rise of tech and silicon valley. It was always a great school obviously, but it would be foolish to say that there is no strong relationship between tech and GSB. Likewise, Columbia and NYU have benefited immensely from NYC’s urban revival under Giuliani and Bloomberg. Before Giuliani, no one wanted to live in NYC, never mind attend school there.

    As for Booth, several things have happened. First, like with NYC, Chicago has experienced an urban renaissance. Booth students live downtown in sleek highrise apartment buildings and have access to world-class nightlife, restaurants, and activities. Second, in a business world where hard skills are becoming more important than ever, Booth wins out due to its rigorous data-driven approach to solving business problems. This stands in sharp contrast to the “kumbaya let’s hold hands” approach of Kellogg for instance. Third, David Booth’s $300 million donation in 2008 was a true game changer. The money has allowed the school to revamp its career services (now the best MBA career center in the world), strengthen its entrepreneurship and marketing centers, and attract the best students with generous merit scholarships. The latter is enabling Booth to take admits away from Wharton/Columbia/MIT/Kellogg. I predict that in about 5 years, Booth will take admits away from HBS/Stanford as well.

    Simply put, Booth is on fire, and its rise to the top cannot be stopped. Anyone who seriously takes a look at Booth will come to realize how amazing the school is.

  • 2cents

    I don’t agree with you (GSB was #1 in 1990 for example in less opinion-driven rankings, which would pre-date the real valley rush), and Columbia’s peak ranking came in 1998 long before anyone was content to live near Harlem (The late 80s and 90s were the NYC hay-day though). Further, Chicago (really Illinois) is struggling to keep businesses there, though I do love the nightlife in the loop. I do think Booth’s strength is its faculty, but it reminds me more of MIT crashing the #1 spot a while ago than anything else. It’s a great school, the hard skill focus does help, and it would be great to be proven wrong in the future. I assume you’re there now or are attending soon judging by the enthusiasm and the blog, so I don’t mean to spark a long debate. I just was curious regarding why you wrote the above.

  • David

    I agree that Chicago on the whole is struggling, but Booth is NOT a regional school. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how strong the Booth brand is throughout the country and even abroad. At the London finance trek, for instance, employers preferred us over local LBS. And there is a decent number of hedge funds in NYC/CT/Boston that recruit at Booth but not at Columbia or Stern. The hedge funds I talked to love our rigorous education and strong quant/analytical skills. They know that when they hire a Boothie, they are getting someone who actually has the raw skills needed to do well.
    Booth has done everything right since Dean Snyder’s tenure. They are making sure to diversify beyond just finance, so they don’t become a one-trick pony such as Columbia or MIT (CBS is in sharp decline).

  • 2cents

    Wow… alright your comments make a whole lot more sense now. good luck with the hedge fund search

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