Fortune Enters The MBA Rankings Game, Trying To Reinvent The Mouse Trap

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And then there is this boo-boo. Online MBA programs that waive standardized test scores often do so for candidates with significant work experience. That truly matters in an MBA program because much of the learning comes from the shared experiences of the students. And online MBA programs are largely populated by students who tend to be older and more experienced than those in full-time programs. Yet, work experience isn’t factored into this group of metrics at all.

Most online MBAs go to school to improve their prospects in their current company, function, or role by deepening their existing skills and becoming more well-rounded. Nothing like that is measured because Fortune does not survey students or alumni of these programs. Fortune doesn’t measure the variable that matters most: what the actual customer thinks about the value of the experience they just went through.

In common with other online rankings, this one suffers the same problem all of these lists do. Online MBAs are in a highly competitive, dynamic marketplace with new players coming on stream on a regular basis. Two of the newest and best programs—the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Boston University—don’t warrant a mention. The disruptively priced $22,000 online MBA offering from the University of Illinois Gies College of Business also doesn’t make the list because it declines to play the rankings game. Yet, all three of these options deserve equal if not more consideration from applicants than many of the schools that make the Fortune listing.

Finally, there’s a so-called “prestige score” that accounts for the remaining 7.5% of a program’s numerical ranks based on existing online MBA rankings from The Princeton Review, Poets&Quants, and U.S. News & World Report. 


There are other quibbles as well, from the fact that Fortune fails to disclose the weights it assigns to each of the metrics in its program score, and the magazine hides the underlying index scores used to actually rank the programs. These are important issues of transparency because more often than not those index scores between and among the numerical rank is statistically meaningless.

Then, there is another peculiar issue with this ranking. The founding advertising sponsor is the for-profit digital education company 2U Inc., which coincidentally has three of the top ten programs and five of the top 20 on Fortune’s inaugural list, including Syracuse University which has never finished in the top tier of existing online MBA rankings that have been published for years. On the newest U.S. News list, the program placed 35th and that was after ranking 54th the year before. Another 2U program at the University of Dayton is ranked 48th by Fortune, 144 places higher than its U.S. News ranking of 192nd.

2U partners tend to deliver high quality digital education but their online MBA programs are among the most expensive in the market because the non-profit schools that have teamed up with 2U must fork over between 50% and 60% of all the tuition from their online degrees to the company. 


Even under those generous terms, however, 2U last year reported a net loss of $216.5 million. In the last three years alone, the company has racked up net losses of nearly half a billion dollars, while its CEO ‘Chip’ Paucek who is prominently quoted in Fortune’s news release, has received $29.9 million in salary, incentive bonuses and stock awards.

Never mind. After all, rankings do attract eyeballs and like any traditional media brand bleeding red ink, Fortune needs clicks and the revenue that might come from them. But it enters a game it knows little about with what appears to be a slapped together list that can mislead and misinform a lot of people. And it is doing so when there are already plenty of these rankings from U.S. News, the Financial Times, Princeton Review, QS, and Poets&Quants.

Truth is, business schools have always had a love-hate relationship with rankings. They love when they are ranked higher than anticipated; and they hate them when their schools and programs lose ground. Newer rankings at this point—more than a quarter of a century after Businessweek put together the first of the regularly published rankings of MBA programs in 1988—have it tougher still to secure cooperation from B-school deans who are, understandably so, overdosed and sick and tired of all these confusing lists.

Our prediction: Fortune will likely face the same hurdles that caused The Wall Street Journal to abandon its MBA rankings after one incredibly embarrassing effort in 2018. That was when the Journal foolishly published a ranking of full-time MBA programs that failed to include Harvard, Wharton, MIT Sloan, Kellogg, Columbia, London Business School, Dartmouth Tuck and UCLA. It makes you wonder how off-based Fortune will be with the other five higher education rankings it intends to publish this year.


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