Forbes MBA Ranking: Where’s the Beef?

Forbes new biennial MBA rankings of U.S. and non-U.S. schools dribbled out of the magazine this week, attracting the customary attention that all such lists draw. Sadly, though, the presentation of these lists and the accompanying stories show still more evidence of traditional media’s woeful decline.

Forbes obviously invests a lot to get this ranking done. The magazine says it surveyed 16,000 MBA alums at more than 100 schools around the world. It then crunched the data it received from some 4,800 respondents, 30% of the sample, to come up with a ranking based on return-on-investment five years after graduation. It’s an ambitious project worth thoughtful analysis and coverage.

But you won’t get any of that from Forbes.

The main story describing the results of the ranking is a poorly written and poorly organized article, something you are more apt to see in a mediocre high school newspaper. In that story only one change in the new ranking is cited: Harvard displacing Stanford as the number one school. There is no explanation why.

Of the ten skimpy paragraphs in this primary story, only two even address the ranking itself. Most of the story is a grab bag of often unrelated statistics reported elsewhere by other organizations from the Graduate Management Admission Council or Universum, the consulting firm, or useless information. Not a single person was quoted in the story, perhaps because no one was interviewed for it.

And the publication’s explanation of its methodology for the project, appearing in a one-paragraph story, is incomplete and unclear. Example: “We adjusted the median ‘5-year MBA Gain’ for cost of living expenses and discounted their earnings gains using a rate tied to money market yields.” What exactly that means is open to question. There is no example that shows these adjustments in practice. Nor is there any further explanation about what Forbes means by adjusting numbers for “cost of living expenses.” The magazine says it also “discounted tuition to account for students who pay in-state rates and for the non-repayable financial aid that schools dole out.” Forbes does not say how these adjustments impact a school’s ranking. It also fails to report where it gets the data on “financial aid.” Some schools decline to report how much they give in scholarship money, making it impossible to fairly do what Forbes says it is doing.

Even worse, however, is the magazine’s release of its rankings for non-U.S. schools. Forbes wisely separates these rankings into two lists: one for one-year programs and another for two-year programs because the opportunity costs of these programs differ greatly. But this year, Forbes only makes this data available in sloppy slideshows thrown together obviously for the sake of increasing its web traffic. The one-year gallery of best business schools mistakenly includes a slide on NASCAR and also has No. 6 ranked Oxford out of order with No. 5 ranked Cambridge. The two-year gallery of best business schools has No. 2 ranked Manchester out of order with No. 3 ranked IESE as well.

The biggest problem, however, is that the slides contain no data whatsoever–just a handout photograph of a school and its latest rank. Forbes doesn’t even bother to inform readers of the return-on-investment calculation on which the ranking is based, the payback period, or any other basic information including salaries five years out or its estimate of the cost of the degree. And, as it has in prevous surveys, there is no mention of what a school’s previous rank had been. So readers can’t tell if a school is doing better or worse based on Forbes’ analysis.

What about the quality of the story accompaning these slide shows? None exists.


  • Inquisitive Mind,

    Our new ranking will come out in early November. There’s just one other major update this year: The Economist’s 2011 ranking that will be published in mid-October. That will allow us to do our composite ranking two weeks later.

  • Inquisitive Mind

    John, so when will the P&Q rankings reflect the new Forbes rankings?

  • Marty,

    You raise an important point. There’s really know way to know for sure. But it should give one some pause over the actual results.

  • Matty

    Well said John.

    Is it safe to deduce that the effort put forth in the analysis/examination of these numbers mirrors the quality/dependability of the numbers themselves?

    Its sad really, because while a simple ROI listing is not the end-all-be-all, it really could be a very useful and complimentary set of data for one’s b-school research. Given that, it could actually be quite harmful if the numbers are in fact faulty.

  • Mr Dreamer

    The quality of Forbes has been declining for quite some time. The magazine’s focus has been shifted from economic analysis to more gutter politics. The site is also formatted more for increasing pageviews, instead of quality journalism. Making a slideshow of the results is a perfect example of this.

    Thanks to John and P&Q for not going the slideshow way. I really like the format of P&Q and hope you guys never revert to the pageview-focused mentality of other sites.