How Rankings Favor Exclusivity Over Inclusion & Affordability

MBA rankings

Business college rankings are easy to criticize—partly because they imperfectly compare programs with differing missions, diverse ranges of student needs, and varied academic offerings. Despite good-faith efforts by ranking organizations to create “fairer” systems, they will always be flawed since they measure institutions through limited sets of data chosen to make their methodology just different enough from other rankings.

An entire industry has built up around rankings, as annual releases of different rankings give prospective students, employers and deans new data to consider and promote. Most of the discussion is around the “elites” and how they change position slightly from year to year. Yet, there are a huge number of students who don’t attend elite programs, whose lives are meaningfully transformed by accredited business programs, and they bring tremendous value to their employers as a result.

In a world that now seems to love to hate the rankings, deans are still under enormous pressure to raise their school’s profiles. Each of us has to make decisions about which rankings to participate in, and which to abandon. At Tippie, our approach has been to hold them loosely, and let some rankings go when they are inconsistent with our mission. 

Rankings can be useful as an indicator of quality, which prospective applicants and employers rely on for making judgements about the educational experience that is delivered. But what is often measured as a proxy for quality is a broad reputational assessment, which typically reflects the overall reputation of the university and its selectivity ratios. When rankings reflect important inputs like class sizes and number of electives, or outcomes such as student retention, graduation rates, and ROI – they can help students make informed decisions. Input indicators help describe the type of program students will encounter, and outcome indicators reflect future earning potential and career acceleration based on degree completion. 

These are also useful data points for deans because they highlight ways to improve student success and help us measure how the skillsets we deliver are being valued in the marketplace. With society increasingly questioning the value of higher education, it is critical to demonstrate placements in good paying jobs, promotions and salary increases that will cover what students have invested in their education. 


Our students have told us in interviews that one of the ways they utilize rankings is to identify the point at which high quality intersects with accessibility and affordability. With fewer companies paying for students’ graduate programs and the staggering amount of student loan debt, cost has been a bigger consideration, regardless of their ability to get into a top-ranked school. 

In the absence of a perfect ranking system, our most important job is to listen to students and to the market, and then provide the educational experiences that are desired, regardless of the impact on rankings. 

An example of this is Tippie’s decision to cut our full-time MBA program. Offering that program is a requirement to be considered for the US News and World Report Best Graduate Business School ranking. We knew the pool of students who could afford—both in time and money—a full-time program was dwindling. We shifted focus and introduced an online program to provide the accessibility, affordability and flexibility students want. And we did this fully aware that without a full-time MBA program, we’ll never again appear one of the most high-profile MBA rankings. But with 43% growth in overall headcount and students taking 16% more classes each semester since we made that decision, we know that students are valuing this approach.

Another example is our recent decision to sunset our Executive MBA (EMBA) program. This will remove us from another ranking, but it’s the right decision for most of our students. Post-Covid we had far more executive-level students, those with 15 or more years of experience, routinely opt into the Iowa MBA instead of the EMBA. Rather than paying more tuition for the elite executive program, these students were choosing the affordable, flexible, portable option — that still offers the skillsets they’re seeking. 


We’re not the only school making choices to ignore some rankings to follow our mission. Other institutions, like Boston University and the University of Illinois, have determined that affordability for students is a key value they want to deliver to their students. These choices put deans in a difficult position, knowing that eschewing rankings may raise questions from faculty, alumni and donors. But affordability allows increased access, and more students with business degrees gives an important boost to their families, their employers and the economy.  

In a business school setting, where rankings are so venerated, letting mission guide your decisions can be intimidating. The first step to overcome this intimidation is to recognize you won’t be alone. There are other high-quality business programs that focus on factors important to many students that aren’t reflected in current rankings. This realization makes it easier to prioritize student- and values-based decisions, even those that represent significant change. A second step is to make the most of those rankings with utility for your institution and let go of the others. These two steps will allow you peace of mind to make the decisions that are right for your students, rather than the decisions that are simply ranked.

Amy Kristof-Brown, dean of the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.

Author Amy Kristof-Brown is the Dean of the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. A professor at the University of Iowa for 27 years, she became dean in December of 2020. Kristof-Brown earned his PhD in organizational behavior from the University of Maryland and her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Richmond.

DON’T MISS: The P&Q Interview: Iowa Tippie Dean Amy Kristof-Brown On The Flexible, Stackable Future Of Business Education or Iowa Goes Inside For A New Tippie Business Dean

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.