This past June, The Economist magazine informed business schools participating in its 2022 Which MBA? ranking that it will no longer be publishing global MBA and Executive MBA rankings. In an email to business schools, Claudia Malley, president and managing director of Economist Impact, said it was a “commercial decision.”
That’s clear, and it’s true. Publications running rankings are in it for the money. But so are the schools participating in them. This is especially the case for MBA and EMBA programs.
RANKINGS DRIVEN BY PROFITS
Magazines publish rankings because they can get significant advertising dollars from universities, particularly from MBA and EMBA programs that because of their high tuition, have some money to spend. Special ranking sections with editorial coverage can also draw in more readers to the publication.
For example, U.S. News & World Report let go of its news magazine model, to focus on rankings, with huge success. Its 2014 Best Colleges rankings attracted 2.6 million unique visitors and 18.9 million page views on the single day of its release. It has added rankings of graduate programs, law schools, business schools, medical schools, and hospitals, taking advantage of this flourishing international rankings industry.
Yet numerous studies have shown rankings to be severely flawed. In an article published in Nature, researchers reviewed the top global university rankings. Their research showed that “none of these ‘flagship’ rankings considered open access, equality, diversity, sustainability, or other society-focused agendas. None allowed users to weigh indicators to reflect a university’s mission. Yet all claim to identify the world’s best universities.”
In addition, the study concluded that “faculty members and funders turn to rankings as a lazy proxy for quality, no matter the flaws. The consequences are all too real: talent deterred; income affected. And inequities quickly become embedded.” All because of where the money comes from—top universities and MBA or EMBA programs that happen to also have the highest tuition rates.
Back in 2011, renowned New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about his own rankings study, in which he concluded that “U.S. News & World Report rankings seems to want to say that depending on the number of students that graduate from the school, the better that school must be.”
Gladwell remarked, “What the rankings are saying in so many words, is that it will penalize a school for attempting to educate lower-income students, who by the very nature or their challenges and struggles will be less likely to graduate.” So, the highest tuition rates attract the richest students, who in turn ensure higher graduation rates.
Though the study in Nature and the one conducted by Gladwell were focused on university rankings, the case is very similar for MBA and EMBA rankings: they are all driven by money.
THE ECONOMIST TRIED BUT FAILED
So why did The Economist bow out of the seemingly lucrative rankings game?
The Economist ranking, despite its flaws (as with all rankings) was arguably one of the more relevant MBA and EMBA lists in terms of its methodology. Whereas the Financial Times rankings methodology is heavily based on salary (40%), The Economist had a much broader and arguably more relevant set of criteria including personal development and professional experience, student and faculty diversity, the quality of faculty, program quality, career progression, and an assessment of a school’s alumni network. These broader metrics are important for senior executives looking for a relevant Executive MBA. When pursuing an EMBA, much of the learning can come from fellow seasoned executives in the program, with many years of management and leadership experience. So class composition and diversity are important.
Because of these broader criteria, several top FT-ranked schools focused on salary did not perform well in The Economist, presumably because salary are given less weight. So, they started dropping out of The Economist rankings. As a result, The Economist rankings became less representative, as they no longer included many top-name brands. Over fifteen top schools were absent from the 2021 ranking, including Harvard, Stanford GSB, Wharton, Columbia, MIT Sloan, LBS and INSEAD. So, applicants stopped considering The Economist rankings as comprehensive. Fewer participating schools, fewer eyeballs, less money for everyone.
MBA vs EMBAs – TWO DIFFERENT AUDIENCES, SAME RANKINGS CRITERIA
In terms of MBA and EMBA rankings, The Economist, Financial Times and QS rankings are the most consulted by candidates seeking a program outside the U.S. Only these three have both MBA and EMBA rankings, and only these are truly global rankings. Others such as U.S. News & World Report , Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek , and Princeton Review are primarily MBA and U.S.-focused, though Bloomberg and Forbes publish separate international rankings for MBA programs. Fortune is a latecomer to the rankings game.
None of the rankings distinguish between MBA and EMBA programs, lumping young twenty-five year-old professionals with forty-plus-year-old seasoned executives in the same pile, using identical rankings criteria to assess the “quality” of both.
For instance, the FT “research rank”, accounts for 10 percent of the MBA and EMBA ranking criteria. It is calculated according to the number of articles published by schools’ full-time faculty in 50 internationally recognized academic and practitioner journals. Faculty with Ph.D.’s is 5%. Does anyone pursuing an EMBA truly care about these criteria? Doubtful. But the schools do. It is how they advance in the overall school or university research rankings.
And when it comes to the diversity of students and faculty, rankings tend to focus only on gender and sometimes internationality. What of cultural and socio-economic diversity? Those who can afford a top EMBA program that costs over $200,000 are for the most part already financially secure. This puts talented executives and innovative entrepreneurs in countries with lower salaries and purchasing power at a huge disadvantage.
And does someone who can afford to pay for a top EMBA primarily seek a higher salary, as rankings such as the FT, tend to suggest?
MBA & EMBA – THE MORE EXPENSIVE THE BETTER?
Business schools view EMBA and MBA programs as “commercial decisions”. Since MBA and EMBA programs became privatized within universities, even public ones, tuition was no longer controlled, and prices soared. So did the profits generated from them. They became the cash cows of many universities, with the gains used to go toward career services (ensuring graduates get well-paid jobs) and to subsidize other university priorities.
The top five schools in the latest 2022 FT MBA ranking were Wharton, Columbia, INSEAD, HBS, and Northwestern – Kellogg. The average tuition for these programs is more than $150,000. The top five EMBA programs are Kellogg/HKUST, Ceibs, Tsinghua/Insead, HEC Paris, and ESCP, averaging over $200,000 in tuition. And that does not include travel and accommodation. This brings the average cost of a top (FT-ranked) EMBA to an average of $250,000 for a two-year part-time global program.
The most recent 2022 EMBA Council (EMBAC) study showed that the most expensive EMBA programs are also the ones with the largest class size. Programs costing more than $150,000 had on average more than 80 participants, whereas programs costing less than $100,000 averaged 40 participants. Again, high tuition equals higher rankings equals higher brand value and interest in the program. Only 16% received full financial support from their employer, and 26% received some support. More than 50% received no financial support from their employer.
WHAT IS REAL DIVERSITY?
What of international diversity, when more than 75% of EMBA participants are either from North America or Asia. Over 80% of students in EMBAs are local for the program. Where is the international diversity?
And socio-economic diversity? The higher up you go in terms of tuition, the lower the diversity as well. Programs costing more than $150,000 are composed mainly of Caucasians (almost 70%). The most expensive programs were also most likely to get employer financial support (approximately 62% for programs >$150,000 vs 55% for programs <$100,000). Programs costing >$100,000 received nearly three times the number of applications as did those less expensive. So, the wealthiest programs get their pick of the most affluent candidates.
Plus, EMBAs tend to accept a large percentage of those who apply. One might argue that applicants self-screen and do not apply if they are not qualified. Still a 60% admittance rate is quite high. This could suggest that if individuals meet minimum (not maximum) criteria, and can pay for the degree, they are likely to be admitted. Out of those applying to EMBAs costing $150,000 or more only 10% are encouraged not to apply versus >25% for programs costing less than $100,000. *
*2022 EMBA Council (EMBAC) study
RICH SCHOOLS EASILY ‘GAME’ THE SYSTEM
What makes matters even worse is that schools, especially rich ones, can easily game the ranking system. For instance, the FT rankings require that each alumni class surveyed include at least 20 alumni from each of three graduated cohorts or a 20% response rate per graduation year.
The best-funded schools can spend time and money engaging with their alumni and “informing them” of how the rankings work and that a great percentage of the scoring (about 40% is based on salary of alumni). So, if an MBA or EMBA alumnus has a lower salary than the average of the top-ranked schools, they can easily be “educated” to not complete the survey, and instead leave it for the wealthier alumni to complete. After all, it is in their interest that their school is highly ranked. It increases their degree’s brand value and reputation, and thus their employability and salaries.
There are signs that the FT and other rankings have been thinking about modifying their criteria, based on feedback from EMBA and MBA students and graduates. It’s about time.
However, it is yet to be seen if rankings publications will make any major changes, and that top-ranked schools will accept these changes, especially if it might mean they are ranked lower unless they also change their ways of evaluating success.
It’s not just simply changing a few rankings criteria; it’s an entire system that needs to change, one that for decades has revolved around money and self-indulgent prestige. A system that has wanted very little to do with measuring learning and learning outcomes, including having a positive impact on organizations, and a positive impact on society in areas that are truly meaningful for everyone such as climate change.
One can only hope and press for change. Let us start by acknowledging the facts about rankings: they are profit-driven and self-indulgent on all accounts, for both publications and the universities and business schools that participate and benefit from them. Let us have more comprehensive rankings that truly recognize and measure learning outcomes and impact. Isn’t that why most people do an MBA or EMBA?
Ron Duerksen is the global executive director of IMPM at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management
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