An MBA Rankings Nose Dive: How Will It Impact Syracuse’s Biggest Graduate Program?

Syracuse online MBA

Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management

Rankings are often a worrisome nuisance to many deans who face endless questions from applicants, students and alumni whenever their schools slip a bit on the annual lists. But what is a dean to say when his school’s top graduate program in business plunges 50 places in two years thanks to U.S. News‘ rankings.

That’s exactly the position that interim Dean Alex McKelvie of Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management finds himself in. Earlier this week, the school’s online MBA program dropped 23 places to rank 85th in the U.S., the second largest decline for any Top 100 program this year. And that drop is after the previous year’s decline of 27 spots from a rank of 35th in 2021. Two quick years and an important graduate program goes from a rank of 35 to 85th.

It’s too early to assess the impact on the program moving forward, but it can hardly be a positive development. For one thing, more graduate students are enrolled in the school’s online MBA than any other graduate degree: 336 students in all, more than five times the enrollment of its on-campus, residential MBA.  For another, the rankings debacle also affects 2U, the educational platform company that has helped to recruit and enroll students into the $64,872 program. That’s because 2U’s revenue is directly connected to the success of that online MBA through a tuition-sharing arrangement with Whitman. Typically, 2U collects 50% to 60% of the school’s online tuition.

Syracuse was 2U’s second online MBA program partner in 2014 after the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina launched its MBA@UNC with the company a few years earlier. UNC has done spectacularly well in U.S. News‘ rankings of online MBAs, capturing the top spot six times, including this year, an honor shared with Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. 2U has a portfolio of online MBA programs that essentially compete with each other, including partnerships with the business schools at Rice University, UC-Davis, American University,Pepperdine, and the University of Dayton.


The Whitman program is no MBA-lite. It’s a quality MBA experience, with a rigorous 54-credit curriculum, with specializations in Accounting, Business Analytics, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Marketing Management, and Supply Chain Management. There are weekly live Internet classes, along with three in-person weekend residences that are hosted in such business hubs as New York City, Denver, Hong Kong and Munich. PoetsandQuants‘ latest ranking for the program is far better than U.S. News: 31st vs. 85th.  ranked the program

Thus far, Syracuse Whitman is at a loss to explain the decline. “At this point, we are reviewing the data and methodology and we don’t have anything concrete to comment on,”  says Dawn S. McWilliams, director of marketing and communications at Whitman. “We are still trying to figure out why and scrutinizing the methodology.”

Trying to uncover the reasons for a school’s ups and downs in U.S. News‘ online MBA ranking is more difficult and time consuming than a 5,000-piece puzzle. That’s because every school’s previous data are erased from U.S. News‘ website and also because not all of the metrics assessed by the rankings organization are easily transparent nor comparable across numerous schools. Oddly, one recent change would have benefitted the program which does not require applicants to submit a GMAT or GRE exam score. U.S. News stopped using those scores in its Online MBA ranking two years ago.


The school-provided data and the opinions of deans and online MBA directors used to rank programs are rolled up into an overly complicated formula that centers on nearly 50 different metrics in five measured categories: Student engagement (30% of the weight), peer assessment (25%), student excellence (15%), faculty credentials and training (15%), and student services and technology (15%). You can discover how each school stands in any one of the five categories based on U.S. News‘ rankings recipe but not necessarily the individual components that make up each category.

The differences for a program ranked first vs. 85th are surprising small (see table below). No less surprising, in one of the five categories, Syracuse even scores ahead of first place UNC. In student engagement, which frankly does not measure how engaged students are in a program, U.S. News gives Syracuse a score of 72, 11 points lower than first place UNC. The gap between the two schools, however, puts Syracuse 290th vs. UNC’s 181. In peer assessment, Syracuse scores a 3.4 to Indiana Kelley’s 4.0 on a five-point scale.

The score given to Syracuse for student excellence by U.S. News is 78 vs. 89 for UNC, while Syracuse’s faculty is awarded 72 points compared to 83 for UNC. and 86 for Kelley. And finally, U.S. News gives Syracuse a 38 for student services and technology which is actually higher than  UNC’s 36, even though both programs are supported in these areas by 2U.

All in all, those are relatively small differences to justify Syracuse’s current rank. But few applicants are likely to poke around in the details of a school ranking which U.S. News hides behind a paywall. As with all rankings, this one needs to be taken with a big grain of salt.


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