In a development that will surprise approximately no one, the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business’ part-time MBA program was again named best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report on Tuesday (March 14). The rest of the top five of the 2017 ranking was slightly less foregone, with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business repeating as No. 2 but with New York University Stern School of Business vaulting from 10th into a third-place tie with UCLA Anderson School of Management (up from No. 4), while Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management fell from No. 3 to No. 5.
Berkeley Haas has been the top dog in the U.S. News ranking for several years in a row. It has the highest average GMAT score of any of the 301 schools in the ranking, 694, with the next closest schools 16 points back (Booth and UCLA tied at 678). At a 47.4% acceptance rate, Berkeley Haas is also the most selective school in the top 25; you have to go all the way down to No. 28 Kennesaw State University Coles School of Business (41.2%) to find a school that is more choosy.
Most importantly for the U.S. News ranking, Berkeley Haas retained its high peer assessment score of 4.5 out of 5. That score, calculated from a fall 2016 survey that asked B-school deans and MBA program directors at 360 part-time MBA programs to rate the other part-time programs, accounts for 50% of the total measure of each school. Only Chicago Booth, at 4.7, received a higher score than Haas.
TRENDS AND COUNTER-TRENDS
Accounting for considerably less of the total score (15%) but a major measurement of program health nonetheless: enrollment. Falling enrollment has been a thorny problem for part-time MBA programs for the last several years, going back to the post-Great Recession recovery period of 2009-2010, and those looking for good news in the latest enrollment numbers at the top schools might be disappointed. There are some positives. From 2015 to 2016, four of the top five schools saw gains: Berkeley Haas rose by a modest three students (799 to 802), Chicago Booth jumped from 1,329 to 1,366, UCLA Anderson climbed from 971 to 986, and Northwestern Kellogg grew by 16 (788 to 804). But NYU Stern, despite its newfound prominence at No. 3, actually lost major ground, with enrollment decreasing by a whopping 159 students, 1,540 to 1,381. Stern is still the biggest part-time MBA program in terms of bodies, but now it only barely edges out Booth.
NYU Stern’s woes crystallize a problem many years in the making. Though part-time MBA programs continue to be the most popular choice for those seeking the degree, they have been falling in popularity for at least the last seven years, according to figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council. In GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey, which is comprised of 85% U.S. schools, fewer than half (43%) of part-time MBA programs reported volume growth compared with 50% that reported declining volume. Some regions experienced growing application volume, including a majority of U.S. programs in the Northeast (53%) and West (50%) — but only 37% of programs in both the South and Midwest reported application volume growth, and nearly half (49%) of part-time MBA programs reported plans to reduce the size of the 2016–2017 class.
Why the downturn in part-time MBA popularity? Business schools blame it on everything from an uncertain economy and crushing undergraduate debt to the proliferation of online MBA degree programs at ranked business schools.
Go down the 2017 U.S. News ranking and you’ll see the dropping enrollment problem affecting schools’ placement. No. 6 University of Michigan Ross School of Business lost 33 students (down to 430) and one spot. No. 9 Ohio State University Fisher College of Business lost nine students (down to 323) and one spot. No. 11 Indiana University Kelley School of Business fell five spots after losing 11 students, down to an enrollment of 294. And No. 15 Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business fell seven spots after losing 21 students, down to 143.
On the other hand, just as some regions are trending upward, some schools fought the headwinds. Both Temple University Fox School of Business and Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business sat at No. 16 in last year’s U.S. News ranking of part-time MBA programs; both vaulted to No. 7 this year, and both boasted enrollment boosts — Pamplin from 145 to 163, and Temple a massive 209 students, from 638 to 847.
MADNESS IN THE METHODOLOGY
About that peer assessment that makes up so much of each school’s score: It’s been widely criticized for relying on the views of deans and program directors who may (and in many cases do) have little idea of the merits or lack thereof of each part-time program they assess. Essentially, it’s a popularity poll filled out by mostly disinterested parties.
In past years, moreover, U.S. News has struggled to get responses to its request for scores. Two years ago they reported aa 41% response rate. That problem seems to be getting better, however, as last year’s survey of deans got a 44% response rate, and the 2017 ranking benefited from a 45% rate.
There are other bones to pick with the methodology of the part-time ranking. Giving more points to a program simply because it has a large enrollment is not a measure of quality in any meaningful way, and in fact it could be argued that some big part-time-enrollment programs are merely money-making operations for schools with little attention paid to quality. Finally, the U.S. News part-time MBA ranking just keeps growing. Two years ago it contained 212 programs; last year it was up to 296, and this year it expanded to 301. It’s been said often, including from Poets&Quants: Available data could never support a credible ranking that deep, and the frequency of ties among schools is an acknowledgement that the underlying scores are so close that many assigned ranks are statistically meaningless.
Other metrics used by U.S. News for scoring schools are average GMAT and GRE scores (15%), average undergraduate GPA (5%); work experience (15%). To be eligible for the U.S. News part-time ranking, a program had to be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and have at least 20 students enrolled part-time in the fall of 2016.
(See the U.S. News ranking of the top 100 part-time programs on the following pages.)