“Do you want to be good at everything — or exceptional at one thing?”
Do one thing different and you’re called a disruptor; you evangelize your customers and find yourself studied by business students. When you’re solid across the board, you’re tagged as stable and trustworthy —a sure thing with little downside or risk. Question is, how do you bridge the gap? How can you be distinctive while mastering every facet?
THE DARDEN DIFFERENCE
That’s a question every business school is asking. Take the University of Virginia’s Darden School. You could boil their brand down to “Teaching Excellence.” Here, faculty prize student scores over research citations. That’s one reason why Darden again ranked #1 for the Best Professors in The Princeton Review’s new business school rankings released this week. However, faculty quality isn’t the only area where Darden excels with The Princeton Review, whose rankings are based on survey responses from MBA students and administrators. The school also notched the top score as the Best MBA Program for Consulting. Darden was also ranked 3rd by survey respondents for Classroom Experience and 5th for Family Friendly Environment and Career Prospects categories. At the same time, it placed among the ten-best for Resources For Women and Campus Environment — not to mention being among the Best MBA Programs for Management, Finance, Marketing, and Non-Profit.
In other words, faculty may be Darden’s differentiator, but it is also a force multiplier that feeds into the program’s versatility and student engagement.
“Darden is also known for the atmosphere of mutual support, between students, and students and faculty members,” explains Dawna Clarke, Darden’s executive director of admissions, in a 2021 interview with P&Q. “Students are serious about being high-performers, but they want to see the person next to them succeed, too. They coach each other ahead of recruiting events, they tutor each other and they generally really like each other. The case method really does help to flex that empathy muscle — Darden students are a joy to spend time with.”
Each year, The Princeton Review surveys stakeholders and experts on how business schools measure up in 18 different categories. From there, it lists the 10 highest-scoring business schools in each one, foregoing an overall ranking in favor in zeroing in on specific areas.
This year’s survey features responses from 18,900 MBA students from 241 business schools. In addition, The Princeton Review collects administrator responses from each of these schools. What makes the ranking distinctive is that different data is used to formulate rankings on different categories. For example, there is a “Best MBA For” section, which school-reported data (placement and pay) is combined with student responses involving preparation programming. Combined, they formulate The Princeton Review’s rankings in Consulting, Finance, Human Resources, Management, Marketing, Nonprofits, and Operations.
School data and student surveys also serve as the foundation for the rankings of the Greatest Resources for Minority Students and Women. Along with faculty percentages for underrepresented groups, The Princeton Review also factors in proportional coursework and cases for these groups, as well as student perception of pertinent resources and overall supportiveness. In the Green MBA category, students assess their schools in “preparing them in environmental/sustainability and social responsibility issues, and for a career in a green job market.”
The Princeton Review also measures admissions inputs and career outputs. The Toughest To Get Into category is a data compilation that includes GMAT and GRE scores, undergraduate GPAs, acceptance rates, and yields. In contrast, Best Career Prospects is a mix of stats and surveys. The former includes pay and placement, with the latter including student input on the quality of the alumni network, internships, mentoring programs, and employers visiting campus. The remaining six categories are based strictly on student surveys. They include the following:
Best Classroom Experience: “Professors’ teaching abilities, the integration of new business trends and practices in the curricula, the intellectual level of their classmates’ contributions in course discussions, and whether the business school is meeting their academic expectations.”
Best Professors: “How good their professors are as teachers and how accessible they are outside the classroom.”
Most Competitive Students: “How competitive their classmates are, how heavy the workload is, and the perceived academic pressure.”
Most Family Friendly: ”How happy married students are, how many students have children, how helpful the school is to students with children, and how much the school does for spouses of students.”
Best Campus Environment: “How happy students are and how they rate the town the school is located in and the campus community, the availability of school activities and level of participation from fellow students.”
Best Administered: “How smoothly the school is run, and the ease with which students can get into required and popular courses.”
STANFORD AND CORNELL BELOVED
While Virginia Darden produced the highest scores for Best Professors and Consulting, it wasn’t alone in earning high approval rates from the MBA community. Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School snapped up the highest scores in Campus Environment and Most Family Friendly. One reason: The Finger Lakes Region literally has something for everyone.
“Ithaca is a city like no other,” observes Dean Mark Nelson in a 2020 interview with P&Q. “It’s the perfect place to find your focus and be inspired. Just a short walk from Cornell you’ll find hiking paths, gorges, a bustling city center, a farmers market, and a 40-mile long Cayuga Lake, all within a few miles…Get a taste for adventure and swim beside a waterfall. Immerse yourself in local art and culture. With awe-inspiring outdoors activities, a diverse and eclectic culture, a huge foodie scene, and a constant flow of intellectual energy, it’s no surprise why Ithaca and Cornell make so many best-of lists.”
By the same token, the University of Michigan’s Ross School ranked #1 for being the Best Administered business school and offering the Greatest Resources To Women. However, this year’s big winner is the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It earned the top spot in four categories: Marketing, Nonprofit, and Management programming — as well as offering the Best Classroom Experience. One reason for the high classroom ratings: Stanford GSB goes beyond lectures and cases, incorporating self-exploration exercise and supportive feedback that encourages students to close the gap between who they are and who they want to be.
“I feel proud to say that I’ve ventured to go deeper in myself throughout these past months,” explains Fernanda Sottil De Aguinaga, a GSB second-year.“ This is something I hadn’t prioritized during the past 5-8 years. As cliché as it can sound, the GSB pushes us to find ourselves. I’ve been encouraged to reflect deeply on who I am and what I want to pursue in my life, the type of leader I want to be, and most importantly the why behind my aspirations. I’m being more intentional and engaging in more reflection of the decisions I’m making for my future career and while at the GSB.”
The remaining top schools are a mix of well-known and emerging players. NYU Stern received students’ nod as the Best MBA for Finance, with Arizona State and American University enjoying the best scores for Operations and Human Resources respectively. You’ll find the Most Competitive Students at Texas’ Acton School of Business and the Most Green MBA at Bard College in New York. The program with the Greatest Resources For Minority Students was again Howard University.
Which programs performed the best overall? That depends on what you’re measuring. Take the “Best MBA For” categories, which cover careers and concentrations. Here, Harvard Business School ranked among the Top 10 schools in five of seven areas, topping out at #4 in both Finance and Nonprofits. Virginia Darden achieved the same milestone, ranking 2nd in Management in addition to 1st for Consulting. Stanford GSB and UCLA Anderson placed Top 10 in four areas, with the latter ranking 5th for Marketing. Here, you’ll also find some surprises. For one, four prominent schools failed to crack the Top 10 in any of the seven “Best MBA For” categories: Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Berkeley Haas, and Yale SOM. The Wharton School placed 5th in Finance — a bit low for a business school traditionally pegged as the best in the field. Similarly, Northwestern Kellogg ranked 10th in Marketing, lower than schools like the University of Washington Foster School (2nd) the Wisconsin Business School (3rd). At the same time, you’ll find some surprises, including Fordham Gabelli and American Kogod ranking among the 10-best in two categories and Cal-State San Bernadino’s Brown College holding down the 3rd spot for Human Resources.
In Classroom Experience and Teaching Excellence, Stanford GSB is the only M7 school to rank in the Top 10 in these categories. In contrast, Michigan Ross, Duke Fuqua, and NYU Stern made the list in both. Two schools punching above their ranking weight: Vanderbilt Owen holds the #4 spot for Teaching Excellence, with Georgia Tech Scheller being the runner-up for Classroom Experience. The University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business also ranked 4th for Classroom Experience. When it comes to Career Prospects, the M7 also fell short of expectations. Just Stanford GSB, Harvard Business, and Columbia Business School made it into the Top 10. They were surrounded by programs traditionally considered underrated or ascending: Virginia Darden, Cornell Johnson, Michigan Ross, Duke Fuqua, NYU Stern, UCLA Anderson, and Georgetown McDonough.
FLAWED OR FAITHFUL?
The biggest variances stem from an area that could loosely be called “Culture.” Vanderbilt Owen ranked in the Top 3 in three categories: Administration, Family-Friendly, and Campus Environment. The only area where Owen didn’t make any noise was Competitive Students — which is considered a negative in many corners. Cornell Johnson also ranked in the Top 3 in the same categories, while Duke Fuqua repeated this feat…just with Top 10 scores. That said, Southern Methodist University’s Cox School finished 4th for Campus Environment, while the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business holds down #5 for Best Administration. When it comes to Most Competitive Students, you won’t find a Top 20 MBA program anywhere, In this categories, the most recognizable name is Rice University’s Jones Graduate School, which ranked 7th.
Of course, The Princeton Review ranking has its issues. For one, there is no underlying data: Just index scores ranging from 60-99 and school-supplied data, both of which aren’t available without registration. Hence, transparency is a concern, particularly since differing weights aren’t disclosed in questions that mix school data and student responses. Readers also don’t know exactly which questions were posed to student respondents — or even how these 90 questions were phrased. Even more, the results have a certain self-reinforcing mechanism, as data from the 2019-2020 and 2018-2019 school year are also incorporated into the results. In fact, we don’t even know how many surveys were completed per school, let alone where the baseline participation requirement might be.
In some ways, The Princeton Review may be the most honest of rankings. After all, it doesn’t rely on an all-in-one methodology (and the biases that come with it). Instead, The Princeton Review simply segments each category and lets MBA applicants decide what’s important.
“We don’t have a “Best Overall Academics” ranking list nor do we rank the schools on a single list because we believe each of the schools included offers outstanding academics,” according to The Princeton Review press release that accompanied the ranking. “We believe that hierarchical ranking lists that focus solely on academics offer very little value to students and only add to the stress of applying to business school.”
To see how your target schools rank in five different categories, click on the links below.