This year, the University of Colorado (Leeds) takes the lead among underperformers, ranking 80th overall and 48th among academics. The University of Colorado averaged an respectable 3.2 score from the peer assessments, placing them among distinguished company like Brigham Young (Marriott) and Boston University. However, the school’s measurables, in areas like average GMAT and GPA, placement rate, acceptance rate, and starting salaries, are all within range of the schools ranked above and below them (give-or-take in a few categories). In fact, its highest ranking comes from Forbes…at #70. Bottom line: Leeds is a very good school; it’s just not top 50 program according to the data. And there’s no shame in that.
Babson College (Olin) is an example of a school whose rank is contingent on what’s measured. For example, Poets and Quants ranks the school at #45, while U.S. News nails it down at #65 (down nine spots from the previous year). In fact, U.S. News itself has ranked Babson as the top program for entrepreneurship for 20 years running (and The Princeton Review ranked it #2). As a result, its curriculum is considered stellar. However, U.S. News rankings also evaluate criteria that aren’t necessarily academically-related. For example, Babson suffers from a high acceptance rate (68.3%), a modest employment rate for new graduates (81.9%), and unremarkable GPAs and GMAT scores (3.19 and 610) from incoming students. As a result, the peer assessments may very well be on the mark about Babson. But there are other factors to consider, besides the curriculum, in producing a well-rounded ranking.
And how do you jump 12 spots and still get labeled an underperformer? That’s a question for the University of Illinois, which rose from #47 to #35 in the 2015 rankings, all while maintaining its enviable 3.6 peer assessment ranking from last year (an equivalent score to higher-ranked Midwestern programs like Notre Dame (Mendoza) and Ohio State (Fisher). Problem is, a 3.6 makes them a top 25 program. If the school had scored a 3.4, they’d be ranked #34, one spot higher than their overall ranking. That’s just how thin the line really is sometimes.
Bottom Line: Don’t Mistake the Brand For the Results
In this year’s peer assessment, the theme was literally, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The popular impression of academia, as a whole, is a conservative institution, bound by tradition, governed by gesture, and changing only in slow increments. And that’s certainly true of business school reputations. Like business, reputations mean something. It is a branding capital that dictates the value of a degree, along with the impression of the rigor and intellectual horsepower needed to attain it. Sometimes, reputation determines who gets hired and how people respond to a school’s alumni. As the U.S. News peer assessment shows, with so little movement in the scores, school reputation is something that’s deeply fixed in the minds of academics.
Yes, the U.S. News rankings are, in part, empirically-based and carefully-calibrated to separate schools, if even by the slightest data point. In the end, they are also beauty contests, with the concept of beauty often in the eye of the beholder. And it’s these impressions that often set reputation, value, and popularity. When it comes to peer assessments, these are the schools that get the benefit of the doubt. In the end, the remaining must swim upstream against these sentiments.
A Quick Note
The U.S. News methodology used above has a minor flaw. Although we subtracted the overall rank from peer assessment rank, the 25 percent weight of the peer assessment is still embedded in the overall rank. In other words, the peer assessment still acts as a drag (or a boost) on the overall ranking. As a result, some schools could theoretically be ranked slightly higher (or lower) if peer assessment was removed entirely.