Bloomberg Businessweek surprised many last week when it announced that it would suspend its 2020 MBA ranking due to the disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The wimpy decision to pause one of the five most influential MBA rankings comes less than two weeks after the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT exam, and two business school accreditation agencies asked ranking organizations, including Businessweek, to halt their work and postpone the publication of their lists (see GMAC Leads A Call For A Pause In MBA Rankings).
Sad to say, Businessweek‘s ranking has waned in importance over the years after a series of abrupt methodology changes and highly inconsistent an less-than-credible results. Last year, for example, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business soared into second place behind Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, skyrocketing 17 places in a single year. That topsy-turvy outcome was nearly as shocking as the previous year’s 12-place plunge by Tuck to an unlikely rank of 19th.
It is one thing, however, for Businessweek to pause its ranking–part of which is based on employment statistics that are more than a year old. It is an entirely another thing for U.S. News & World Report, the most followed MBA ranking in North America, or the Financial Times, the most influential ranking in Europe and Asia, to halt publication of their rankings. Both of these media organizations gather freshly issued metrics that help inform the applicant market, allowing candidates to compare and contrast these schools far beyond any numerical rank they are given.
‘EVERY INSTITUTION IS FACING THE SAME HURDLES RIGHT NOW’
In fact, the release of those metrics, made uniform by the reporting requirements imposed on schools by U.S. News and the FT, is especially critical in this year made turbulent by the coronavirus outbreak and the global recession. Transparency is more critical today than ever before. Applicants should have access to timely metrics that will likely show which schools have best weathered the storm at hand.
In the days before there were rankings, 25 schools would claim they were in the top ten and 50 schools would claim they were among the top 25. Even after the early introduction of rankings, several business schools would fudge the numbers they reported, interpreting survey questions in ways that would make their schools look better than they really were. However flawed, rankings hold administrators accountable. They have also made schools more progressive and less complacent.
It’s notable that when Wharton refused to cooperate with Businessweek‘s ranking in 2004, it was only after the school fell from first to fifth under then Dean Patrick Harker. Why did the school fall to its lowest level on the list since the launch of the ranking 16 years earlier? Precisely because it deserved to fall below Kellogg, Booth, Harvard and Stanford. It was because Businessweek gave voice to MBA graduating students who complained about Wharton’s complacent career services office which was left without a director for more than three months leading up to graduation. And that was in middle of a dismal job market for MBAs.
WHY BUSINESS SCHOOLS SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE TO THEIR STAKEHOLDERS
That year, the percentage of Wharton MBA grads without a job offers by commencement–24%–was higher than Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Northwestern Kellogg and most other peer schools. If not for Businessweek‘s ranking, the misgivings of students would have been hidden from view along with Harker’s mediocre leadership. Instead of acknowledging the school’s failure to perform up to its students’ expectations and vowing to do better, what did Dean Harker do? He attempted to organize a boycott of the rankings. Shamefully, Harvard Business School joined in this futile exercise. Even worse, these two schools boycotted the rankings under the laughable pretense of principle. Back then, Businessweek wasn’t about to let Wharton or Harvard off the hook. The boycott failed after Businessweek obtained the data it needed to rank the schools, anyway.
Prospective students, commenting in online forums including Poets&Quants, have argued against a pause for this very reason. They maintain that a pause would only result in less transparency of key data used by applications to inform their decisions on which schools to attend. “Every institution is facing the same hurdles right now,” wrote one critic on Poets&Quants. “Why shouldn’t they be judged on how they reacted to this crisis, and by extension how students reacted to their solutions. Continue to do the rankings, because honestly, the playing field has not changed where certain schools are more disadvantaged then others.”
Truth be told, rankings are less important for where a school is ranked than for the vast array of underlying data they unleash. That data dump allows applicants to compare schools with each other across a wide range of factors and attributes. They are a starting point for candidates who are making an important investment in their futures. And as a data source, rankings are far superior to individual disclosures by the schools.
NO B-SCHOOL PROFESSOR WOULD ARGUE THAT PUBLIC COMPANIES SHOULD STOP REPORTING PROFIT AND LOSS NUMBERS
Reporting by schools, either in class profiles or employment reports, is highly inconsistent. Schools routinely report metrics that show their institutions in the best possible light, often neglecting to include stats that could be interpreted in a less-than-positive way. The collection and publication of standardized data, particularly by U.S. News, is especially important now when acceptance rates, application volumes, and standardized test scores may be very different from recent history. The same is true of the data for employment outcomes, from the percentage of this year’s graduating class with offers at commencement and three months later as well as average salary and bonus.
Candidates have a right to know this information to make the most informed admission decisions possible. Business schools ask their students to quit their jobs, forego income for up to two years, and pay tuition and fees at rates that many deans willingly concede are steep if not excessive. Surely, the schools can cough up the data that they generate anyway to measure their own progress and benchmark it against peers.
Frankly, the rationale for a postponement is not all that credible to begin with. GMAC has told ranking organizations that it is inappropriate to ask students, alumni and recruiters to fill out ranking surveys during the coronavirus health crisis. Staff workloads are already stressed, they argue, and data collected from schools could be overwhelmed by the pandemic and fail to reflect well on the schools. Given how sheltered all of those constituents are during the pandemic, they actually have more time to more thoughtfully fill those surveys out than they did before.
PUBLISH YOUR RANKINGS JUST AS YOU WOULD AT ANY OTHER TIME
Almost all business schools, moreover, have full-time staffers who collect and report data to ranking organizations. If they didn’t have surveys to complete, what else would they possibly do, anyway. And if the reported stats reflect poorly on certain schools, that is vital information for the public to have. I am certain that no business school professor would advocate that a public company not report its results because of the pandemic. Why should business schools do what none of their professors would possibly endorse for public company disclosures?
Bob Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News, has told Poets&Quants that “the team at U.S. News continues to monitor the unprecedented disruptions to business schools themselves, their current students and prospective students caused by COVID 19. As a result, we’re still reviewing our strategies for both our next U.S. News Full-time and Part-time Best Business Schools rankings and fall 2020 data collection.”
Our advice: Publish your rankings just as you would at any other time, just as you did during the 2008-2009 financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession.