You want answers? Then you go to the source. In business schools, that means the students – also known as the consumers and stakeholders. In the end, they’re the ones who can tell you if the experience matches the hype.
That’s why student opinion matters to applicants. They’ve lived the experience, the curriculum, and culture – the resources and support too. Sure, you can get that from dialing up alumni. First, it helps to get the bigger picture.
STUDENTS SUPPLY THE ANSWER
The Economist is famous for conducting an annual student and alumni survey covering everything from career services to faculty quality. Bloomberg Businessweek targets the same pool, focusing on areas like alumni support, innovation, prestige, and entrepreneurship. This month, The Princeton Review released its own MBA rankings based on survey results.
Yes, that Princeton Review – the one with no affiliation to Princeton University. This higher education firm supplies test prep and admissions guides for every conceivable niche. Not surprisingly, they entered the rankings space decades ago. With business schools, they’ve taken a different tact. Rather than herding schools through another complex and flawed methodology, the Princeton Review simply evaluates schools according to 18 separate measures.
These lists include areas that would interest any serious MBA interest: classroom experience, faculty quality, family friendliness, and resources catered to women and minorities. Oh, and the ranking also segments out MBA sentiments on how well their school prepared them for careers in consulting, finance, management, marketing, and other fields.
BEST CAMPUS ENVIRONMENT: LOOK TO AUSTIN
How did your favorite MBA programs fare in the Princeton Review survey? Certainly, survey respondents favored Stanford GSB. The program produced the highest index scores in 6 of the 18 measures, including Best Career Prospects, Toughest Admissions, and Classroom Experience. Stanford GSB also ranked as the top MBA program in the fields of Marketing, Nonprofits, and Management. Stanford GSB wasn’t alone in topping more than one list. Brigham Young’s Marriott School also notched the top index scores in two categories: Family-Friendliness and Human Resources.
The remaining measures either reinforce conventional wisdom or offer jaw-dropping surprises. The Best Professors, for example, hail from the University of Virginia’s Darden School according to Princeton Review respondents – a sentiment consistently reinforced across various MBA surveys. The Dean’s Cup – Best Administered Business School – went to the University of Michigan’s Ross School (and, by extension, Dean Scott DeRue). By the same token, Columbia Business School – dubbed a “finance school” par excellence for generations – earned the highest survey marks for Finance. And the same is true for Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School in Operations.
Some surprises? Head to Austin, Texas and you’ll find the Most Competitive MBA Students. No, these students aren’t packed at McCombs’ Rowling Hall. Instead, they populate the Acton School of Business, whose tagline is “Expect to earn it.” Ironically, the University of Texas’ McCombs School fits on the opposite end of the spectrum: Best Campus Environment. For women, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School offers the Best Resources – which also reflects case study materials targeting women in business. The Best Resources For Minority Students, according to survey respondents, can be found at Howard University (a ranking that also goes beyond student ratings to include “resources available for minority students, diversity in the student body, and how supportive the campus culture is of minority students.”).
New York’s Bard College topped the final measure: Best Green MBA. This is defined as “preparing [students] them to address environmental, sustainability, and social responsibility issues in their careers.”
VANDERBILT OWEN AMONG THE UNDERRATED
There were also several MBA programs that performed well across the board according to survey respondents. That starts with Cornell University’s Johnson School, which ranked 2nd in five measures: Career Prospects, Family Friendliness, Campus Environment, Consulting, and Finance (and it finished 3rd for Faculty Quality and 4th for Management). The University of Michigan’s Ross School finished among the 10-highest scores in 11 measures, including 2nd for Faculty Quality and 4th for both Resources for Women and Human Resources. Aside from housing the top faculty, Virginia Darden could be found among the top 10 on 10 lists. That includes Classroom Experience (#2), Management (#3), and Campus Environment (#4).
By the same token, Duke Fuqua ranked among the ten-best in seven measures according to survey respondents. NYU Stern and Texas McCombs were equally versatile, with top ten placements in six categories. What was the biggest surprise? That would be Vanderbilt University’s Owen School. Slotted 28th in P&Q’s 2021 MBA ranking, Owen produced five placements in the Top 10, ranking 2nd for Administration, 3rd for Human Resources, and 4th for both Faculty Quality and Family Friendliness. A few other unexpected results include Texas A&M’s Mays School ranking 3rd for Administration, while unheralded University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the College of William & Mary making 2nd and 3rd respectively for Resources for Minorities.
That said, some results call into question the credibility of the ranking. Harvard Business School, for example, could be found among the ten-best in nine lists…but not Faculty Quality or Classroom Experience? Several top academic programs, including Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, and Dartmouth Tuck didn’t rank for Faculty Quality. In fact, the University of Chicago’s Booth School – P&Q’s #2 program for 2021 – only ranked among the ten-best in one category: toughest admissions. The same is true for the Wharton School and MIT’s Sloan School, which ranks 3rd and 5th respectively according to P&Q.
SOME HEAD-SCRATCHERS TOO
Some individual marks look increasingly dubious on further inspection. The Wharton School and Dartmouth Tuck, for example, traditionally yields some of the highest starting pay for new grads. According to respondents to The Princeton Review survey, neither school ranks among the ten-best for Career Prospects. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School has been lauded as the top Marketing school in the country according to academics and employers alike for decades. However, on this list, Kellogg finishes 10th. That’s still better than how the Yale School of Management fared. Regarded as the MBA program for non-profit education, Yale SOM couldn’t even crack the top 10 here.
One culprit is a rather permissive methodology. According to The Princeton Review’s methodology, the MBA rankings stem from surveys from 17,800 students from 244 business schools from the 2019-2020, 2018-2019, and 2017-2018 school years. The student survey consists of 90 questions, according to the site, on “their school’s academics, student body, and campus life, as well as their career plans.” However, the surveys also include survey data from school administrators based on 300 questions.
Here’s how that shakes out. In reality, just six categories rely exclusively from student-supplied data: Administration, Campus Environment, Faculty Quality, Student Competitiveness, and Green MBA. Another 11 categories contain a mix of student and administrator responses: Resources for Female and Minority Students, Career Prospects, Classroom Experience, and Best MBA for Consulting, Finance, Marketing, Management, Nonprofits, Operations, and Human Resources. A final tier – Toughest Admissions – is comprised of data furnished exclusively by schools.
A STARTING POINT
This matters on innumerable levels. For one, The Princeton Review doesn’t share which questions were asked – or how they were phrased – leaving the specifics up to interpretation. The scores are also indexed on a scale from 60-99. However, The Princeton Review only supplies the ranking, not the range. Translation: applicants don’t know how far apart schools may be according to the data collected. At the same time, The Princeton Review furnishes just the Top 10 schools in each list, which excludes potential “borderline” schools whose index score could be quite comparable to the MBA programs above it.
On top of that, The Princeton Review doesn’t break down the differing weights between students and administrative respondents in the 11 measures where the two are mixed. While the Princeton Review works with schools to procure surveys with on-campus MBA students, it also maintains an online survey where site visitors can include their feedback, making responses potentially less targeted than those conducted by The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. In addition, there aren’t any specifics on how much weight each of three different years receive in a school ranking (though The Princeton Review notes that each campus has 370 responses minimum). On top of that, just one non-American program – IMD Business School – appears in any of the Top 10 lists
Obviously, The Princeton Review ranking suffers from a lack of transparency. Does that make the information useless? Hardly. Any ranking is a starting point. And, to borrow a famous MBA saying, “feedback is a gift.” In this case, the rankings can tip applicants off to programs that excel in a variety of measure (Virginia Darden, Cornell Johnson, Michigan Ross, Texas McCombs) as well as programs outside the Top 20 that punch well above their weight (Vanderbilt Owen, Rice Jones, Brigham Young Marriott). A school’s Top 10 ranking in some areas – and exclusions in others – certainly provides prospective applicants with questions to ask alumni and adcoms. Even more, as The Princeton Review notes, the survey responses show candidates how their target schools fare in areas that are important to them, rather than simply slapping a one-size-fits-all rank on each school.
“We strongly recommend these schools for their outstanding MBA programs,” notes Rob Franek, The Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief, in a statement coinciding with the release of the rankings. “Each school we selected offers stellar academics as well as robust experiential components. We do not tally a hierarchical mega-list of best b-schools overall because our goal, for the 25+ years we’ve conducted this project, is to help MBA applicants identify the business schools best for them. Our multiple categories of ranking lists are designed to help them do just that.”
To see how your target schools rank in five different categories, click on the links below.