There’s no doubt about it: Rankings of everything from cars and hotels to movies and academic degrees tend to obsess people about to make a big investment. It’s at the core of Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Travel Advisor, Consumer Reports, Amazon and Netflix. And it’s a starting place for anyone interested in the increasingly cluttered and still growing market for online MBA degrees.
Who’s on top these days? Well, that depends on who you ask. U.S. News this year crowned the hybrid program at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business as the number online MBA option in a tie with UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The Financial Times, on the other hand, puts Warwick Business School in Britain at the top. QS, the admissions event company, claims it is IE Business School in Spain. Poets&Quants‘ fourth annual 2021 ranking assigns top honors to Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. So does the latest Princeton Review list. And, in search of Internet eyeballs, new rankings continue to proliferate. Fortune is coming out with its first list on Monday, even though it has never devoted coverage to business education.
The disparity in ranking outcomes can not only lead to confusion; it can persuade the less informed to make poor decisions. In an age when people pay obsessive attention to rankings and yet have diminished attention spans, it is too easy to over-interpret the results of any of these lists. That’s why it’s crucial to remember two things about online rankings: 1) Many quality programs are either so new or decline to cooperate with the lists that if you depend on rankings you might miss some of the best programs for you. 2) Where a program ends up has more to do with the methodology chosen by the people who crank out these lists than the actual quality of the program itself.
TWO MAJOR ISSUES TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN LOOKING AT ONLINE MBA RANKINGS
Let’s address the first point first. Because they are so new, online MBA programs at top business schools such as the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and UC-Davis’ Business School are on no lists at all. Yet, both of these programs are among the best in the world. You also won’t find on any ranking two of the most disruptive efforts in online education at the University of Illinois Gies College of Business or Boston University’s Questrom School of Management.
Gies’ iMBA is priced at just $22,000, while BU’s Online MBA costs only $24,000. BU only enrolled its first Online MBA class last fall so it is too young to be ranked. Gies has chosen not to play the rankings game. Instead, Gies makes its case by openly disclosing selected data on student satisfaction, career outcomes, student demographics and graduation rates to help would-be applicants make up their minds.
Either way, whether a program is too new to rank or decides against cooperating with lists, prospective students would be missing out on at least a handful of the best Online MBA options in the market if they solely relied on rankings.
WHAT IS MEASURED DETERMINES A PROGRAM’S RANK BUT NOT NECESSARILY ITS QUALITY
Then, you have the problem of what exactly is being measured in a ranking. Truth is, most rankings are cobbled together by journalists or data analysts who have never attended a business course and know little to nothing about business education. They often include in their approaches metrics that have nothing to do with the actual quality of an online MBA program or just as bad they overweight measures that really don’t matter all that much.
Does anyone who takes an online MBA really care about the academic research published in scholarly journals by a school’s faculty? Yet, the Financial Times puts significant weight on this metric in its annual Online MBA ranking, even though it fails to account for the research done by professors who actually teach the online courses. Instead, it measures the output of the school’s entire faculty, including those who have never taught in the Online MBA program.
Or should anyone care about employment in an online MBA? After all, Online MBA programs are by definition part-time, meaning that all the students already have jobs and are employed. Yet, the admissions event company, QS, heavily weights “employability” from a general survey of employers that has nothing to do with online MBA programs. Even worse, the organization purports to measure the “faculty and teaching quality” based largely on another general survey of academics, including most who have no involvement in online learning, never bothering to ask for candid assessments the most important stakeholders–the students and graduates who paid good money for their degrees and invested considerable time in the programs.
SINGLE BIGGEST PROBLEM? RANKINGS MADE OUT OF AIR BY INTERNET CHARLATANS
And then there is U.S. News. The magazine’s ranking solely relies on data reported by the schools. To be fair, it’s a treasure trove of interesting stats and figures. But it is also subject to outright fraud. One of the biggest rankings scandals ever involved Temple University’s deliberate attempts over several years to fraudulently report data to U.S. News that allowed its online MBA program to rack up four consecutive No. 1 years from 2015 to 2018. It was a status the program would never have achieved if not for cooking the books. In fact, with accurate data now being reported, Temple’s online MBA doesn’t rank any higher than 100th in U.S. News–a real comedown from first place only three years ago.
The single biggest problem with online MBA rankings, however, is that a number of websites that earn money based on referrals have put together rankings that have no basis in fact. These sites use the lists as clickbait for their revenue and income. Charlatans and fraudsters have figured out how to game Google and make money by funneling non-suspecting prospective students to schools for lead generation and affiliate marketing deals. If you’re looking for exhibit A in today’s fake rankings game, look no further than CollegeChoice.net. Its website is a wasteland of useless content and fraudulent rankings. At best, it’s valueless entertainment. At worst, it’s highly misleading and deceptive information that can cause naive college applicants to make costly and disastrous choices (see The Biggest Rankings Scam On The Planet).
With all this in mind, you could quickly come to the conclusion that all of these lists are not only imperfect, they are disingenuous and harmful. But there are pros and cons to the more legitimate attempts to measure the quality of Online MBA programs, and there is much to inform a decision in the wealth of data that gets published on various aspects of these programs that would be extremely important to a potential student.
Here’s our take on the pros and cons of each of the top four rankings of Online MBA options:
The Lo-Down: U.S. News is, of course, the Big Daddy of college rankings. Over the years, it has faced countless attacks on its methodology and its influence. The Online MBA ranking is the oldest and most established list, having made its debut in 2013. So there are nine editions of the ranking. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School are tied with the most first-place wins over all those years, with each of their online options taking the top prize four times. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School has won once–in 2021 when it tied with UNC–while Washington State University’s Online MBA was first on the inaugural ranking back in 2013.
- It’s the most extensive listing of Online MBA programs in the U.S. The newest ranking, published in January of 2021, puts numerical ranks on 295 online MBA programs and lists 324 separate programs.
- You can argue about how valid the ranking might be but there is no doubt about U.S. News‘ impact in the marketplace.
- More valuable than the ranking is the amount of data gathered by U.S. News for the list, including revealing info on admission standards, retention of students and graduation rates.
- It is entirely U.S.-centric so none of some of the best programs outside the U.S. are on the list.
- The ranking is largely based on self-reported school data that can be fudged. In fact, one of the biggest ranking scandals ever occurred when Temple University fraudulently submitted data to gain a number one ranking for its Online MBA for four consecutive years from 2015 to 2018 before being caught.
- An “expert opinion” portion of the ranking, accounting for 25% of the methodology, gathers the perspectives “high-ranking academic officials at online MBA programs.” Problem is, most of those surveyed have little to no knowledge of the other programs and rate them based on school brand and earlier U.S. News‘ rankings.
- Some of the roller-coaster outcomes, with some schools rising or falling by massive amounts year-over-year. raise serious doubts about the validity of the ranking. This year, for example, Bentley College’s online MBA jumped 112 spots to rank 67th from 179 a year ago. Florida Southern College and Santa Clara University both made huge gains, advancing 97 and 91 places, respectively, to rank 94th and 40th. There were no major changes in these programs to warrant those gains.
- The formula U.S. News uses to rank programs is overly complicated, with nearly 50 different metrics in five measured categories: Student engagement (28% of the weight), admissions selectivity (25%), peer reputation (25%), faculty credentials and training (11%), and student services and technology (11%).
The Lo-Down: Britain’s salmon-colored financial newspaper has been ranking Online MBA programs for the past eight year, starting in 2014, a year after U.S. News got into the online act. The newest 2021 list, published in March of 2021, puts Warwick Business School’s Online MBA on top for the fourth year in a row. Over eight rankings, Spain’s IE Business School has won top honors in the first four years to equal Warwick’s last four wins. The newspaper ranks programs on the basis of 18 metrics chosen from both school and alumni surveys, putting the largest weight on compensation. The reason Warwick does so well is because of the salaries that its alumni command: an average of $207,725 three years after graduation, the highest of any ranked program.
- Provides a decent look at non-U.S. online options because the ranking is supposedly global.
- Has the considerable credibility of the Financial Times whose full-time global MBA ranking carries significant weight, largely in Europe and Asia.
- Unlike U.S. News, the FT surveys actual alumni of Online MBA programs for their opinions and discloses a large part of the results
- It’s extremely limited with the 2021 list ranking only 15 programs. That represents fewer than 5% of the available Online MBA programs in the market. The limited nature of the ranking is largely the result of business schools’ decisions to ignore it and not cooperate with the list.
- It skews heavily to favor European programs, partly a function of the methodology but also the lack of participation by many U.S. players. Four of the 18 data points in the ranking reward a school for having more international students, faculty, board members, and “international mobility,” a metric that tracks where students worked before their MBA, on completion, and three years after. Those metrics obviously favor European countries, some of which are no larger than U.S. states.
- The methodology includes metrics that have nothing to do with the quality of an Online MBA program. One of the 18 metrics used by the FT to rank online programs is a school’s faculty research rank, even though it is measuring all the school’s professors and not only those who teach online. It also gives ranking credit to schools with a higher percentage of faculty with doctorates, regardless of whether they teach online or not.
The Lo-Down: Are we biased? Of course, we are. Unlike most rankings that are put together by well-meaning journalists who know little to nothing about rankings or business education, this one was created by the person who put together the first regularly published rankings of full-time MBA programs for Businessweek in 1988. And it was the result of a collaboration among the business schools to insure that it measures the actual quality of the academic program. It is also among the most transparent of all of them. The ranking debuted in 2018 with Carnegie Mellon on top. In 2021, Indiana Kelley won top honors for the first time and was also chosen as the MBA Program of the Year in 2020.
- The methodology for the ranking was developed in collaboration with several business schools so what is measured is what really matters to students.
- The ranking puts equal weight on admission standards, the actual academic experience, and the career outcomes, all essential ingredients in a quality program.
- Among all the rankings, no one publishes more alumni survey data than P&Q. The data is the most complete look at student satisfaction in Online MBA programs anywhere.
- Users are given total transparency to both the methodology and the data, including the underlying index scores that result in numerical rankings.
- The ranking fails to take into full account offerings outside the U.S. On the 2021 list, only one non-U.S. school is ranked: Imperial College Business School in London, ranked 39th this year.
- While much larger than the Financial Times ranking, it is still relatively small with only 47 programs ranked.
The Lo-Down: The Princeton Review, the beleaguered test prep brand that has seen brighter days, began ranking Online MBA programs in 2015. In the debut ranking, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School took top honors and then repeated as the winner in 2016. Since then, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, which was the runner-up in the first two rankings, has completely dominated this list, winning five consecutive first-place awards. Princeton Review ranks programs as a clickbait scheme to lure prospective students onto its website. Of course, other organizations do the same, including some that produce entirely fake rankings (see The Biggest MBA Rankings Scam On The Planet) with cribbed cut-and-paste descriptions of the programs from the school’s websites. Unlike them, Princeton Review puts in the work, surveying thousands of online students and a good number of business school administrators. But the biggest issue with the Princeton Review rankings go to the lack of transparency. The company’s rankings methodology is incredibly vague. We’re told that programs are evaluated on five criteria: academics, selectivity, faculty, technical platforms, and career outcomes. The list is based on both surveys of administrators and currently enrolled students. But you don’t really know what is being measured or how much weight is provided on any given metric. And PR never reports its response rate so you have no idea how many students responded to their surveys. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business topped the 2021 list.
- At the very least, the top ten programs seem credible.
- The ranking is mostly based on the opinions of students.
- It flunks the transparency test. Like its other rankings, Princeton Review fails to fully explain its methodology so you have no idea what in fact they are ranking. The description of the methodology is purposely vague. PR gives you an idea of what they ask students but never publish the results on any of the questions and fails to disclose how much weight it puts on any one survey question or section. At best, this is pathetic. At worst, it is dishonest.
- The ranking is largely based on a survey of students but Princeton Review never reveals the size of the sample, the number of respondents, or the response rate. That is irresponsible and probably because the response rate is exceptionally low.
- The test prep firm does not publish the underlying index numbers for each program so you don’t know whether a numerical rank is statistically significant. The result: A school ranked 12 could be pretty much equal to a school ranked 18th.
- Its earlier rankings and taken off the web and so you are unable to refer back to see how programs advanced, declined or fell off the latest list.
If you haven’t heard of QS, you have never gone to an MBA admissions event. QS is the largest organizer of business school admissions events in the world, though that is a business that isn’t doing all the well during the pandemic. To attract eyeballs, QS also cranks out a series of rankings, including on online MBAs. QS ranks these programs on four metrics: Employability, class profile, faculty and teaching, and class experience. The newest list–the tenth edition–15th, came out this week. For the fourth year in a row, Spain’s IE Business School won top honors, garnering the highest scores of any program for employability and for faculty and teaching.
- It’s an expansive global list of online programs, with more than 50 programs ranked around the world.
- It’s especially helpful to those in Europe because, fairly or unfairly, these online programs tend to dominate the top of the list. Six to the top ten on the 2021 ranking are all in Europe, including the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 schools.
- QS provides the overall index scores which at least gives readers a chance to see how much one school is ahead of another and whether it’s meaningful.
- It’s downright silly to use employability as a metric because Online MBA programs are populated by part-time students who are already employed. This data comes from a general survey of employers, the vast majority of whom don’t recruit or hire Online MBA graduates.
- We have a similar problem with the academic and teaching metric. Students and graduates, who would naturally be the most important people to survey, are not included at all. Instead, QS bases this measure on a survey of academics, most of whom have no idea what is going on outside their own schools.
- As an events company, QS lacks the gravitas and credibility of the big media brands like U.S. News and the Financial Times or specialized media such as Poets&Quants.
DON’T MISS: POETS&QUANTS’ ONLINE MBA HUB