Ranking B-Schools on Student Satisfaction

The 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 who considers whether to go for an MBA wants answered.

* 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 the 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, stuffed envelopes with the paper surveys for weeks on end. One by one, 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.

My goal: To create the first ranking based on what MBAs actually thought of the education they had just received. My motivation was not to sell magazines or advertising. It was to report and write an important story that people would find valuable and compelling. Of course, I knew it would create a stir—especially because the results of that first 1988 ranking shocked many in the business school world.

What BusinessWeek would ultimately publish on the cover of the magazine would become one of the magazine’s best selling covers of all time. More importantly, though, it would become the first regularly published rankings of business schools in the world.

But when I presented the results to my editor, Steve Shepard, he expressed some concern. “How can you rank schools only on the basis of what graduates think?” Back to the drawing board I went. Ultimately, we added one other key component before publication: a survey of the companies that essentially create the market for MBAs. Together, the two surveys measured how well the schools served their two key markets: MBA students and their ultimate employers.

Some 22 years later, that’s still pretty much the case (see the latest 2010 student satisfaction ranking and how schools fared back to 1998 on the next page). There are now 50 questions on each graduate survey. Instead of 3,000 surveys going out to grads at 25 or so U.S. schools, there are nearly 18,000 being sent 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 accounts for 10% of the ranking. But the ranking is still largely an attempt to measure customer satisfaction—not GMAT scores or selectivity, MBA pay packages or the percentage of MBAs employed at graduation.

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