Ranking B-Schools By Specialization

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business


This commitment is taking shape in Ross’ mission to “reinvent” the business school experience through its newly-minted “Living Businesses” program. Think of it as an ongoing internship or consulting project that doesn’t end at the semester or summer. Drawing off of Ross’ experiential bent, the program enables students to apply their core expertise while experiencing cross-functional dynamics by operating a real business. The first of these stretch assignments is Shinola, a rapidly-growing luxury retail brand from Detroit. In March, a team of undergraduates and MBAs began reporting directly to Shinola’s CEO — and were given the responsibility of designing, launching and operating Shinola’s next business unit.

“This is ongoing,” DeRue explains. “This is not a short-term consulting project where they tell Shinola what the business should be and what the business case is. Students have to do that, but then they have to actually build it. There will be multiple functions in play, from marketing and branding to supply chain and operations to the finance and administrative functions of the business. Our students are going to have to do all aspects of that business. And the stakes are real. We fundamentally believe the best way to learn business is to actually do business. And we wrap all this with the coaching, mentorship and the faculty, who can help reinforce the core fundamentals and expertise of the various functions when needed.”

Ross may be the prototype for the total package business school, but there are several MBA programs that are glaring omissions in U.S. News’ specialization ranking. Take Booth, which only ranks top ten in three specializations (accounting, finance and marketing). Across town, Kellogg finds its way into just four categories (though it remained tops in marketing). What about Dartmouth’s Tuck School, which makes just one top ten appearance (#6 in management)?


Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission

Does this mean that students won’t get as well-rounded of an education as their peers at Stanford, Ross, Wharton, and Harvard? Hardly, says Jeremy Shinewald, President and Founder of mbaMission, an elite MBA consulting firm. A Darden alum, Shinewald’s alma mater made U.S. News’ top ten in just two concentrations (entrepreneurship and management). That shouldn’t be a red flag that the program is weak in certain areas in his experience. And Shinewald takes umbrage at the notion that some top MBA programs may not be strong across the board.

“The quality of education across Top 20 is excellent,” he tells P&Q in an interview. “Among the Top 20 schools universally, they have their bases covered. I’ve visited a lot of business schools and I think that I am always impressed.”

For Shinewald, MBAs can get a good job in consulting, for example, whether they attend Harvard, Wharton, Duke, or NYU. The same is true with financial services, marketing, and general management, he adds. The differences, he believes, involve niche strengths. That may include healthcare, where Shinewald lauds Duke, Kellogg or Wharton, or asset management, where McCombs students can manage an $18 million dollar fund. “It’s when you get real deep, then you have some niches that might sparkle a little more than others,” he notes.

Depth isn’t one of the U.S. News specialization ranking’s strengths. Make no mistake: it is riddled with flaws. Unlike U.S. News’ overall MBA ranking — which has been roundly criticized for giving a 40% weight to peer and recruiter assessment scores — the specialization ranking is 100% subjective. There is not one quantitative measure baked into in the evaluation. Instead, U.S. News reduces it to a popularity contest among the b-school elite. Here, each respondent can choose up to 10 programs per specialty to be included in the ranking. While some respondents may have previously worked at different institutions or maintain relationships with colleagues outside their school, Shinewald questions whether they have the day-to-day experience to truly measure the quality of their peer schools.


“What ends up happening is stereotypes beget stereotypes,” he says. “Some of the deans, in my opinion, don’t take a lot of time to do their homework or really dig into what these schools are about. They’re running big institutions. They don’t have time to go out there and research 25 different programs definitively that this is best in a certain area for XYZ reason. They go with what they know and what they know is what we all know and that is what generally forms stereotypes.”

This lack of awareness — coupled with the potential for bias — is only part of the problem. The methodology doesn’t specify exactly what the respondents are evaluating, whether that would be faculty or curriculum quality (among many other options). The responses are also given the same weight, meaning a vote for Harvard is equal to a vote for the St. Louis University in any given specialization. In other words, U.S. News doesn’t take the extra step of measuring the academic community’s passion for particular programs. The only bedrock is that schools must earn seven or more votes to be ranked. On top of that, U.S. News doesn’t reveal the number of respondents, let alone the participants involved, adding further skepticism about the distance between voter and school.

Despite the dubious methodology, the U.S. News specialization ranking still possesses value. Fair or not, it is a window into how programs are perceived in certain areas. More than that, they can tip applicants off to potential changes in how programs are viewed. Due to the self-reinforcing nature of the ranking — along with the small pool of respondents to draw from — the specialization rankings tend to see little movement year-to-year. As a result, splashy debuts or large movements are potential indicators that a shift in the market’s thinking may be in the works.


South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business is ranked 62nd among the top 100 business schools in the U.S. by Poets&Quants.

South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business

The logistics ranking illustrates such a point. Typically, business schools will gain or lose one or two spots in the specialization ranking. Here, Wharton and Columbia went from ranking 10th and 17th respectively in 2016 to going unranked in 2017. Arizona State tumbled from 4th to 21st. Not to mention, Michigan State upended MIT as the top school in the field.

That said, several programs moved the needle in a positive direction (i.e. four spots or more) in 2017, perhaps a harbinger that school efforts were finally recognized by their peers.  These upswings included Northwestern and California-Berkeley (accounting); Ohio State (finance); Georgia (information systems), Duke and Minnesota (operations); Virginia (entrepreneurship); Northwestern, Yale, and Georgetown (international business); Yale and Duke (management); and Indiana and Florida (marketing).

By the same token, the ranking allows often-overlooked programs to step out of their overall ranking. Exhibit A is Babson College, which placed #1 in entrepreneurship despite ranking outside the top 50 overall. The University of South Carolina can boast the same, finishing first in the international business voting. In accounting, the University of Illinois and Brigham Young University rank 3rd and 7th. Much the same, #49 Arizona settled in at 4th in information systems, while #50 Purdue claimed the 6th spot in operations.

To see how your favorite MBA programs ranked in the specializations, click on the links below.

Finance and Accounting

Information Systems and Nonprofit

Operations and Logistics

Entrepreneurship and Management

Marketing and International Business

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