How MBAs Rank Their Own Business Schools

Graduate School of Business Knight Management Center

Graduate School of Business Knight Management Center

How Graduates Rank Their Business Schools

“The customer is always right.”

Ever been on the wrong end of that adage? A patron abruptly chooses chicken over tilapia? You smile and rush the order to the back. A whale client adds new features to the schema? You can grumble about scope creep, but you’ll eventually bear the costs. You justify it with every motivational cliché. ‘Customers pay the bills.’ ‘It’s five times easier to keep a customer than find a new one.’

In a hypercompetitive age, word of mouth matters. How powerful is this force? Take this month’s 2015 Prospective Student Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). In one question, GMAC asked likely applicants where they get their information about graduate business programs. Four of the top nine sources came from personal networks: Friends and family, current students and alumni, co-workers and peers, and employers and supervisors. In fact, current students and alumni have nearly the same influence on prospective students as school rankings. In other words, another’s bad experience – first-hand or otherwise – can undermine a school’s branding, outreach, and academic excellence.


And that means it pays to know what current students and alumni think about a program. Based on Bloomberg Businessweek survey results, Stanford is the best place for MBAs to be – but only by a small margin.

As part of its 2014 MBA rankings, Bloomberg Businessweek asked nearly 10,000 graduating MBAs to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how strongly they agreed with this statement: “I would encourage those looking for an MBA to enroll in my MBA program.” Overall, graduates were overwhelmingly positive about their experience according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Scores on this measure range from 4.99 at the high end to 4.01, meaning everyone either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that they’d recommend their school to others. That makes the tiny differences between numbers more meaningful.”

Actually, not really. Small differences mean that they are far less likely to be statistically meaningful and are far more likely to be the result of sample error or deliberate cheerleading. After all, every student completes these surveys knowing that their answers will be used to create a ranking. Few MBAs want to hurt the brand on their diplomas. Consider this reality: Stanford scored a 4.993 average versus tenth-ranked UCLA (Anderson) (4.940). That’s only five hundredths of a point difference from the first-ranked school to the tenth. In other words, that’s slicing the salami pretty thin. It’s no difference at all.

Still, at least Businessweek gives readers the actual data that casts great doubt on the results. Most other ranking sources do not reveal the stats in a way that allows readers to understand how meaningless these distinctions are among the schools that are each given numerical ranks when it is intellectually dishonest to do so.


The bottom line: The ranking is often less instructive than what the graduates value. Take top-ranked Stanford, where recent graduates tout the network and culture. One respondent commends Stanford’s Silicon Valley alumni network, describing as “unparalleled” and “incredibly responsive and happy to meet even at the CEO level.” Another praises the school’s overall atmosphere. “There is an emphasis on personal development and openness within the community, which enables students to learn and grow, connect deeply with classmates, develop a better sense of their values, better understand themselves, and develop better interpersonal skills.” And never underestimate small class sizes and world class facilities, which were also cited by recent graduates.

The University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, which was ranked 17th overall by Bloomberg Businessweek, finished just behind Stanford on the endorsement question. And like Stanford, Smith students valued the school’s “closely knit community” and supportive culture. “The class size was small and intimate,” one respondent wrote. “I know the names of all of my classmates and I’ve interacted with all of them either on a personal level or a professional level. This individual went on to praise the school’s experiential bent. “I also enjoyed many of the ‘real world’ type classes. One example is the Mayer Fund which is a class where we manage part of the university’s endowment fund.”

Harvard Business School, which was ranked eighth overall by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014, rounded out the top three when it comes to student satisfaction. And academic excellence remains the school’s biggest calling card. “The quality of the education has been amazing,” one respondent writes.  “This is in part thanks to the excellent faculty, course material, and student body.” Another spells out exactly what makes the academic experience different: “The critical thinking and debate that occurs inside and outside of the classroom every day. Solutions are questioned and either rejected or refined. This becomes a habit in daily life after attending HBS.”

However, as one recent alum adds, the academic experience is only as good as the class. In that regard, Harvard really stands out. “It’s a high performance, demanding environment that is also hyper-supportive and amazingly diverse and inclusive. I was exposed to people from all parts of the world with every background imaginable and that changed my perspective on the world and people. The program really is life changing because of all the people you meet during the two years.”

As you’d expect, several leading programs, such as the University of Chicago (Booth), Wharton, the University of California-Berkeley (Haas), the University of Virginia (Darden), and Northwestern (Kellogg) also made Bloomberg Businessweek’s top ten for student satisfaction. However, Brigham Young University’s Marriott School was the biggest surprise in the top 10. Long known for reasonable tuitions and high yield, the school earns its highest kudos for its collaborative environment. “Everyone is willing to help one another out,” one respondent shared with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This extends beyond the classroom to interview prep, networking into companies, and professional development.”

Go to next page to see the Bloomberg Businessweek rankings

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