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A New Rankings Revolt In The Making?

Elliot Bendoly of Ohio State has co-authored a new research paper that is the latest attack on business school rankings. Learn more about MBA rankings criticism

Elliot Bendoly of Ohio State has co-authored a new research paper that is the latest attack on business school rankings

Here we go again.

Deans and faculty from business schools at more than 20 universities are apparently taking something of a stand against MBA and undergraduate business rankings which they claim are misleading and disingenuous.

Rather than “acquiesce to methods of comparison we know to be fundamentally misleading,” the administrators are encouraging their peers at other schools to stop participating in a process they say rates programs on a narrow set of criteria, according to The Wall Street Journal today (May 9).

The protest appears in the form of a research paper to be published in the May edition of Decision Sciences Journal, a scholarly publication read mostly by academics. According to the Journal, the researchers examine the approaches used by media outlets to aggregate different factors like admitted students’ test scores and tenured faculty on a school’s payroll into a single number, arguing that the process oversimplifies the array of reasons students pursue business degrees.

Robert Morse, the guru behind the most cited rankings at U.S. News & World Report, defends such lists. “We created the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools MBA rankings to provide prospective students with the data-driven comparative information needed to make better-informed decisions about their higher education,” says Morse. “This is why prospective U.S. and international MBA students come to U.S. News when choosing an MBA program.”

MORE A PUBLIC GRUMBLING THAN A TRUE REVOLT?

Rather than an actual revolt, however, the latest academic article represents more of a public grumbling over ranking methodologies than it is any indication of an uprising to walk away from the lists which impact application volume, alumni giving, and decisions by employers to recruit at a specific school. Ironically, schools more often than not publicize their rankings, helping to promote and encourage their use.

Besides, threats to refuse to cooperate with a ranking are hardly new. Only last year, Switzerland-based IMD tried to pull out of the annual MBA ranking published by The Economist. The magazine chose to rank IMD, anyway, by using publicly available data as well as old graduate surveys (see IMD Tries To Pull Out Of The Economist Ranking).

The highest-profile revolt occurred in 2004 when Wharton decided it would not provide access to students for Businssweek’s survey of MBA graduates, even convincing Harvard Business School to go along. Then Wharton Dean Patrick Harker made the decision after falling from first place to fifth in Businessweek’s ranking in 2002 and being criticized by students in the magazine’s surveys for his stewardship of the school. But the magazine gained access to those email addresses, anyway, and still ranked both Wharton and HBS without their cooperation.

ABSENCE FROM A RANKING WOULD LIKELY TRIGGER AN APPLICATION DROPOFF

Second-tier schools that decline to participate in a ranking are typically at a severe disadvantage because their absence from a list would hardly diminish a ranking’s credibility or impact. The likely outcome: A school would simply disappear from the ranking, a move that would more often than not result in lower application volume as well as outrage from both students and alumni.

Most ranking revolts are instigated by disgruntled or self-interested deans whose schools have either taken a consequential fall on a list or who are pushing a rejected agenda that would be to their school’s advantage. IMD staged its protest last year only after tumbling 11 places in The Economist’s ranking of MBA programs to a 32nd place finish. The Wharton revolt only occurred after the school fell four places, largely because the dean took too long to fill a top vacancy in the school’s career management center just after the Great Recession hit.

While it is certainly true that all rankings are to some extent flawed, often including metrics that have little to do with educational quality, such lists have imposed a level of transparency that has been helpful to both applicants and parents who are seeking third-party assessment and validation of a school’s claims. They also have been helpful to business school administrators who benchmark their programs against rivals to make improvements at the schools.

KENAN-FLAGLER HAS NO INTENTION OF PULLING OUT OF RANKINGS

The latest revolt is likely to be overstated. While the Wall Street Journal identified four schools that have signed on to the research paper, the highest-ranked school, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, told Poets&Quants it will continue to cooperate with rankings. In fact, says a spokesperson for the school, Kenan-Flagler is currently working on ranking questionnaires from both Bloomberg Businessweek and The Financial Times. The school is also engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Poets&Quants for its second annual ranking of undergraduate business programs.

The co-author of the academic paper is Elliot Bendoly, an associate dean of undergraduate students and programs at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “If the goal is to help inform [students] about how to make the best decision about business schools, let’s give them the raw information, and not take numbers—which may or may not be relevant to the student—and bungle them together into a ranked list,” Bendoly, a professor of management sciences, told the Journal.

If not for rankings, however, many schools would fail to disclose basic information to allow students and their parents to make informed judgments on an investment that can easily total a quarter of a million dollars. At a time when schools are asking students to incur debt burdens that can reach into six figures, it would seem the worse possible moment to mount a protest against rankings, however flawed they may be.

A CO-AUTHOR OF THE PAPER ARGUES IN FAVOR OF CHANGES THAT WOULD FAVOR HIS SCHOOL OVER OTHERS

Bendoly told the Journal that surveys favoring schools with the highest-earning alumni might ignore the program’s tendency to place students in high cost-of-living locations such as New York City, or industries such as finance, which don’t match all applicants’ career goals.

However, even schools that are more deeply rooted in a region of the nation where the cost-of-living may be lower enroll and place students all over the world, making adjustments to their salary numbers difficult, if not impossible.

Bendoly told the newspaper that Fisher last year attempted to pull out of one organization’s ranking process, but the media outlet was still able to obtain information such as the career outcomes of the school’s graduates from other sources. Though he declined to name the organization, it was Poets&Quants which published its first undergraduate ranking in early December of last year.