MBA Rankings And B-Schools: A Love-Hate Relationship

BWCOVER‘LITERALLY SWEAT BULLETS OVER THESE ANSWERS’

BusinessWeek began ranking MBA programs a quarter of a century ago, starting in 1988. Then, it was a relatively simple survey. Now, given all the rankings that have followed BusinessWeek’s list, it’s a time-consuming job. Many B-schools have a dedicated professional, ranging from a media relations director to a compliance officer, who aggregates the ranking data; other schools spread the work across multiple personnel.

Regardless of the person in charge, top rankings require the input of multiple offices and deans, who must review and sign off on the stats. Tuck’s Paquette spends roughly one-third of her time on rankings and supervises another employee who devotes half his time to them.

The school participates in five rankings each year, some of which take months to complete. Numbers such as employment statistics and undergraduate GPAs must be collected from departments across the school. But often the stat is only a starting place, according to Paquette. “One data point requires multiple stages to develop that data point. A percentage requires a numerator and denominator, so you have to get two pieces of data and those are built up from other pieces of data,” she says. “The number of questions isn’t the point; the point is how precise and detailed is the question.”

At Cox, Martinez manages the rankings almost single-handedly. She divvies up the questions, sends them to the offices with the relevant data, collects the answers, and assesses them. These stats are then reviewed by Associate Dean Marci Armstrong before going to Cox Dean Albert W. Niemi, Jr. for a final sign off. The school participates in at least eight major rankings, and juggling all the forms is no easy task, according to Martinez. “I literally sweat bullets over these answers; I’ve become the most paranoid person that works at this school because I’m always afraid I’m the one who’s going to somehow mess up–that maybe I didn’t see the right information or God forbid I miss a deadline, which is truly a nightmare that has awaken me more than once in a cold sweat,” she says.

WHY B-SCHOOLS CAN’T GIVE THEM UP

A proliferation of rankings has undoubtedly diluted the value of them. After all, when 10 rankings dub 10 different schools No. 1, it’s difficult to determine who’s really top dog. Martinez receives such an influx of ranking requests in the fall that she now calls it high ranking season. Organizations ranging from Military MBA to Canada’s Corporate Knights now offer their own orderings of B-school programs. “We turn a lot down because we just statistically and emotionally can’t participate in all of them,” says Lynda Oliver, Cox’s assistant dean of marketing and communications.

Despite their drawbacks, rankings’ reach and influence mean that few business schools dare shun them. “Rankings are undoubtedly an important signaling tool, and hence, they fuel the brand of the school with prestige. It’s like having a respected, unbiased third opinion about the relevant players in the market,” says Erik Schlie, the associate dean of MBA programs at IE Business School in Spain.

It’s also free publicity. “When you think about the PR and media attention that a school can get, some of it you have to work hard for and others come your way due to rankings. If you do well, you get a lot of free PR,” Tuck’s Paquette points out.

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF RANKINGS

But on the flipside–a major fall in the rankings or a reporting gaffe–can cost schools big time. Rankings are often a signal of quality to incoming students and potential employers, so a drop can reduce applications and deter future employers from seeking a B-school’s MBAs.

Armstrong says Cox’s slip in BusinessWeek’s full-time MBA ranking hasn’t significantly impacted applications. But the school made a point to communicate the methodology change to anyone questioning the fall. She’s also adamant that while schools can’t ignore rankings, they also can’t be ruled by them. “My philosophy is that’s just one part of what you are,” she says. “Rankings go up, rankings go down. If you hang everything on rankings, then you’re going to have some wildly ecstatic, wonderful years when you go up, but you’re going to have some really tough years when you go down.”

Cox has certainly experienced the highs and lows of the rankings roller coaster. Last year, BusinessWeek ranked Cox’s EMBA program No. 3, right behind Northwestern (Kellogg) and Chicago (Booth). “We were kind of waiting to get that, ‘Oh, we changed the methodology again,’ especially given that it was us,” says Oliver, an assistant dean. She recalls receiving several calls from the publication verifying their information. “I think they were like, ‘Oh God, we’ve just knocked them down under full-time and now we have to say they’re No. 3.’ That felt pretty sweet.” 

DON’T MISS: Confessions Of An MBA Ranking Guru or Ranking Business School Reputations