The Economist’s MBA Ranking Guru

Bill, The Economist was late to the game of ranking business schools. BusinessWeek started it all in 1988, and your global rival in the game, The Financial Times, started ranking full-time MBA programs in 1998. When you helped create The Economist ranking in 2002, what were you trying to achieve?

We didn’t want to just copy the FT. It would be pointless to just replicate what it does. We wanted to do something different. So we came at it from the angle that we had been publishing a guide for about 25 years that included a survey of students. Over that time, we had asked about 250,000 students why they decided to take an MBA. So we thought what we would do is rather than rank schools on reputation, which is perfectly sensible, we would look at how well schools answered the criteria that students said was important.

So the categories are weighted based on the importance given to them by students. That is our take. That is why some of the smaller schools that are lesser known do quite well.

We are not measuring reputation. We are trying to measure things like career advancement and the potential to network. So we place a lot of emphasis on career departments, career placement and the sectors that students go into–and a little bit less emphasis on salary. That’s what came back from the students.

Has the methodology changed much over the years?

Fundamentally no. Some of the questions (on the student and school surveys) we may have tweaked because we found better ways to get at the information and we wanted to tighten up some of our definitions because you essentially learn where the loopholes are which schools might try to exploit.

Have the opinions of the MBA students you survey changed much over the years?

It’s essentially the same. They take an MBA to further their career, to gain personal development, and get networking. What we are doing this year is to get a real handle on whether or not we should give more prominence to sustainability and business ethics. There has been so much attention to those issues in the past five years. We didn’t explicitly ask in our previous questionnaires, but we might want to incorporate more of that in our ranking. We surveyed students on these issues this year to see if this was an important part of their process of choosing a school.

How would you incorporate that into your ranking?

If anyone has ideas, I’m open to listening to them. I’m currently stumped as to how to look at it. The schools that do it best allow business ethics or sustainability to permeate everything. That’s what makes it very good but difficult to measure. It’s not just an elective in the curriculum.

There will be no change in the methodology or presentation this year. We will look at whether the students have reported on the importance of ethics to their choice of school, and make a decision on that for the next ranking.

How many students do you survey in any given year?

We survey about 10,000 students every year. We get to them through the schools. We ask that the schools to circulate the questionnaires to their current students and to the last three years of there graduated classes. The response rate we require for a school is equivalent to 25% of its last intake. So that can be alumni or current students. Every school that doesn’t match up doesn’t get a rank.

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