Rethinking The Rankings: USC’s Geoff Garrett Calls For A Paradigm Shift

Geoff Garrett, dean of USC Marshall: “What I would like to see is better rankings of the other important things that business schools do”

It’s easy to attack MBA rankings, which is why just about everyone does it, especially those who feel their schools have not gotten their proper due. It’s not unusual to hear top-25 B-school deans or their deputies take to task specific rankings — or, when they’re in a really fine fettle, the concept of rankings in general. We hear it often!

Sometimes they make good points — and sometimes they absolutely destroy the ranking in question, as in the case of Bloomberg Businessweek‘s disastrous 2021 list. But in a new interview with Poets&Quants, Geoffrey Garrett of USC Marshall School of Business offers a different argument — a challenge less to the outcome of any one ranking and more to the way they are conducted, and what they purport to measure.

Crucially, Garrett doesn’t want to merely opine on rankings’ shortcomings; he wants to do something about it. So he has asked more than a dozen of his peers at top U.S. B-schools to meet with him this spring to hash out what a new rankings paradigm might look like.

B-SCHOOLS: MORE THAN JUST MBA PROGRAMS

Geoff Garrett

Garrett, Marshall’s dean since 2020 and dean of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for six years before that, tells Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview that too often, rankings style themselves as holistic — as “business school” rankings, when they are really only judging a school’s full-time MBA.

“It’s easy to take a swipe at the rankings,” Garrett acknowledges. “We love them when we do well and we criticize them when we do less well. But I think there is a disconnect between what we rank and what business schools actually do. And this is the broader point: that the halo effect from the full-time MBA rankings is massive — and the terms ‘full-time MBA program’ and ‘business school’ are used interchangeably, even among people who are pretty close to the ground, pretty sophisticated about business schools.”

But of course B-schools offer a great deal more than full-time MBA programs. The last decade has seen the prominence of the traditional residential MBA wane as specialized master’s degrees and online MBAs have multiplied and grown. Garrett says schools and the magazines that rank them should not downplay what has historically been the flagship degree of most B-schools; instead, they should play up schools’ other offerings, starting with specialized master’s and undergraduate programs.

“We all pay so much attention to the full-time MBA rankings in a world in which, if you just look at what business schools do and where students go and all that stuff, full-time MBA is a really small percentage of the business school market,” he says. “Undergraduate is the biggest part of the market, and thanks to Poets&Quants for having a real metric-driven undergraduate market ranking. I’m so glad we did well in that. But then in the last decade, obviously you get the rise of specialized master’s degrees as well. And then even in the MBA marketplace, convenience has become a really big deal — part-time programs, online programs, etc.

“So my going-in observation would be that all the business schools pay attention to the full-time MBA rankings, which of course they should do, but the full-time MBA rankings are often called ‘best business school,’ and they actually don’t generalize to the whole business school. Twenty percent of all degrees issued are undergraduate business — so why wouldn’t you want your business school rankings to include that?”

NEEDED: RANKINGS FOR SPECIALIZED MASTER’S

It makes Garrett’s argument stronger that his schools have not been strangers to rankings success. This is not a story of sour grapes. Wharton, from 2017 to 2020, topped the U.S. News & World Report ranking three out of four years, and ranked second in the most recent iteration in 2021 (the magazine’s 2022 ranking is due next week). Wharton also was the annual winner of the U.S. News undergrad ranking and regularly topped The Financial Times‘ ranking that includes the leading European and Asian schools.

USC Marshall is, if anything, a more intriguing story. Even before Garrett arrived in July 2020, the Marshall School was the biggest gainer in U.S. News‘ top 25, moving up eight places between 2017 and 2021, to its current spot at 16th. Marshall has risen 12 points between the last two Forbes rankings, eight points in the latest Bloomberg list, and 12 spots in The Financial Times‘ 2022 global ranking. In Poets&Quantsannual aggregate ranking, USC is 18th; five years ago it was 26th. Meanwhile, in our undergraduate ranking, USC ranked third this year behind only Wharton and Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

“I’m very pleased that the improvements in the USC MBA program have been reflected in the rankings,” Garrett says. “That’s been great. And actually, it was bigger than that: I think six or seven years ago, the school was around 31st. It was 31 and has climbed to 16. That’s a big change.”

But the problem remains that most of USC’s massive program — including 10 specialized master’s degrees and an undergraduate program with more than 4,000 students — is not represented as part of the whole by any current rankings. The Marshall Master of Analytics program, for example, is “absolutely highest quality, and we don’t know how to talk about that — and one reason is, we don’t have rankings.”

Next page: Geoff Garrett’s plan for a spring conference of deans to tackle the question of how rankings are conducted

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