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

Former Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett accepted the top job at USC Marshall in 2019 and started in 2020. File photo


Geoff Garrett doesn’t want to downplay the importance of the full-time MBA. Neither does he want to center it so completely in assessments of business school quality.

“Of course I’m committed to always improving the quality of the MBA program and hoping that’ll get reflected in the rankings,” he says, “but I just see on a daily basis that there’s so much more to the school than the full-time MBA. And it’s not an instead-of. I certainly wouldn’t want to be grist for the crisis of the MBA mill.

“So let’s talk about that for a second. I mean, I think two things are true: One is that the opportunity cost for a very successful 27 year old of going back to school and doing a full-time MBA, that opportunity cost is really high right now. And I think that puts good pressure on schools, which is, you’ve got to deliver a lot of value to overcome that opportunity cost. So I like that pressure. But at the same time, I think that we know that the kind of person doing a full-time MBA is different today than 20 or 30 years ago. The traditional kind of career passport — you need the MBA stamp to go to the next place in your career — that’s just decreasingly true, for a whole variety of reasons that we know.

“So I think what that means is that people who do the full-time MBA tend to be thinking about career reset. And to my mind, that’s a positive thing, right? Not a negative thing. And a lot of the career reset obviously entails people who are thinking about being entrepreneurs striking out on their own, where doing a high-quality, full-time MBA is a good place to think about a startup, because you’re going to meet a lot of people who can be very helpful to you. You’re going to be acquiring a lot of skills. And if your startup doesn’t work out, you’re still going to be really employable in other places.

“So opportunity cost is high. Programs have to deliver high quality. And then we just need to think about the kind of students that we’re getting. But let’s toggle back to undergraduate for a second. I believe — I certainly thought this at Wharton and I believe it at USC — that if we can launch students out of a great undergraduate degree, the probability is that they won’t come back to do an MBA, unless they want to do a big rethink of their careers, a career pivot. So it’s not either/or, it’s both, for me.”


In what could be the business school equivalent of a constitutional convention, Garrett has asked a group of his peers — deans at 15 of the top business schools in the U.S., based on which schools are ranked well in undergraduate, ranked well in MBA, and that have a specialized master’s portfolio — to attend a meeting this spring to discuss rankings. He hopes it will take place around May 20, though it has already been postponed by Covid-19 concerns.

What comes out of the meeting is anyone’s guess; even Garrett doesn’t know what to expect.

“I want to talk about all this stuff with them, because, again, I think there’s this disconnect between what business schools do and how we’re ranked, and what can we do about that is really the question.

“What I would like to see is better rankings of the other important things that business schools do. So again, thanks and congrats to Poets&Quants on the undergraduate side, because as you know, the U.S. News undergraduate ranking is just a beauty contest. They just ask me and all the other deans, ‘What do you think?’ And they can do better. I’d like to try to help them do better — so, having something like the attention that’s currently paid to full-time MBA, paid to undergraduate. I think that’d be great.”


A challenge for the schools as well as the rankers, Garrett says: How do we think about specialized master’s programs, and where do they fit into the mix and how should they be ranked?

“At the moment, it’s just all over the place, right?” he says. “I mean, very hit-and-miss, nothing particularly systematic. We don’t agree on what the important degrees are. So some conscious thought to that world, which plus or minus looks to me like 25% of the business school market is now in specialized master’s. That would be a good development. And maybe once you did that, you could do an index of the rankings. If you said, ‘Hey, basically there are these three lines of business for business schools: undergraduate, specialized master’s, MBA. Can we then put them together somehow?’

One problem: Many of the most elite business schools won’t be included, because they don’t have undergraduate programs or — in the case of Garrett’s former school, speccialized master’s.

“You don’t have Harvard, you don’t have Stanford, you don’t have Chicago, you don’t have Northwestern, and you don’t even have Wharton — Wharton has undergraduate, but they don’t have specialized master’s. But for me, that’s just an observation that the very top schools are a decreasingly representative sample of what business schools do, yet they have this outsized reputational impact — not only for their schools, but for everybody else, because the implicit is, ‘Hey, you’ve got to look like Harvard Business School or Stanford GSB.’

“That was basically what I said to all the deans. I said, ‘Hey, we’re all comprehensive schools. Let’s sit down together and talk about how we should think about that.’ The communication impact of the rankings in business schools is massive. So we’d like to be communicating more accurately what we do — that’s the way I think about it.”


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