My thinking then—and now—was that anyone could get those numbers from the schools. Anyone could put together his or her own ranking with that data. What we were doing was putting valuable information—even intelligence—into the marketplace that would otherwise be completely unavailable. That is still true today, even as many others have rushed to copy what BusinessWeek, now Bloomberg BusinessWeek, pioneered.
Of the five most influential rankings of business schools, the BusinessWeek list remains the most consulted in the field, followed by the Financial Times, U.S. News & World Report, The Economist, and Forbes. Surprisingly, Poets&Quants’ own composite regularly published ranking of business schools, which I started with the launch of PoetsandQuants.com in 2009, is now more popular than either The Economist or Forbes rankings, according to a recent survey of MBA applicants by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants.
Each of the five media outlets has its own methodology for ranking business schools—and each system obviously results in different standings based on the metrics the organization uses. That’s why it is rare for one ranking to look like another—and that is a good thing. Each method of ranking and stacking business schools has flaws, but all are well-intentioned efforts to measure something that matters.
For an applicant to a business school, rankings are a great place to start the search for an MBA program. Along with giving every prospective student a good idea of the value and reputation of a school brand, they unleash highly valuable (and more standardized) statistics into the market, allowing you to make your own judgments on the quality of the MBA experience at any given institution. It’s common for people to pooh-pooh rankings and tell you not to pay too much attention to them. And, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes think I created a monster, largely because there are so many rankings that have no credibility whatsoever.
But when people say rankings shouldn’t be used to help you decide which school to attend, they’re dead wrong. Schools that dislike where they rank are eager to diminish the lists. Admission consultants who can’t get you into a highly ranked school will say rankings don’t matter. Don’t listen to them. The absolute best students go to the highly ranked schools. So do the best faculty and the best recruiters who literally use rankings to decide where they recruit. The latest research by the Graduate Management Admission Council shows that rankings are more important to corporate recruiters than the influence of a school’s alumni at their own companies, their relationship with career services, the school’s accreditation, or the reputation of the faculty. In fact, corporate recruiters admit that rankings are more than twice as important to their decision to recruit at a school than the school’s own admission standards. Besides all that, alumni of highly ranked schools tend to be more generous to their alma maters because they’re proud to be associated with a school that does well in a ranking.
Before the regularly published ranking of business schools began, there were 50 schools that pretended to be among the Top 25 and at least several hundred that claimed to be in the Top 100. Before rankings emerged, there was little standardized information available about MBA programs, from GMATs and GPAs to starting salaries. Rankings, however imperfect, keep the schools honest and allow for transparency in graduate business education that would not otherwise occur. They offer a quick glimpse into the prestige of the MBA degree. And they encourage business schools to work harder to satisfy their core constituents: students as well as the companies that recruit them. People choose business schools based on a wide variety of factors: cost, length of time, location, teaching methods, size, and faculty quality. But the single most important factor is brand reputation—and that is largely determined by rankings over the years. A highly ranked business school simply delivers more career value than a lower-ranked school.
Deciding to go to a school based on its brand value is a pretty good bet. That’s not to say that the actual MBA education you receive is all that different from one school to another, but a highly ranked school is more typically a highly selective one. It attracts the best students and faculty, boasts greater resources, has greater access to jobs and career opportunities, and typically has a tighter alumni network that can benefit you over the course of your professional life. That is what rankings—in general—tell you about MBA programs, and that is why they are so valuable as a decision-making tool. It’s also why the schools take them seriously. Sure, different lists convey different things. If you’re interested in simple return-on-investment, you’ll want to look at the Forbes ranking. If you’re interested in a more global look at MBA programs, you should consult the Financial Times. If you’re keen to wade through a lot of quality data—from GMAT and GPA scores to acceptance and placement rates—you’ll want to check out U.S. News & World Report.