Turning the Tables: Ranking the MBA Rankings

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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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