MBA rankings

by Des Dearlove
Rankings come in many shapes and sizes. But all rankings have one thing in common: they are just one way to judge a business school.

You should weigh their findings against what the school says, what its students and alumni tell you, the views of the business community, and your own feelings. Rankings are worth looking at if for no other reason than that they may influence the perception of your potential employers. But, if you’re going to base your decision on them, read them carefully and weigh the other criteria with them to get an overall, balanced picture. More important is the question of accreditation. Accredited courses are those which have been approved by independent accrediting bodies, so consider these more seriously.

Ranking the rankings
Rankings are supposed to bring greater transparency to the MBA market. But they are far from perfect. All reputable rankings come with an explanation of the criteria and methodology they employ. Those who are serious about researching business schools should read the small print. So, what should you look for?

The measures and criteria being used
First, you need to know exactly what measures schools are being ranked on. This requires careful scrutiny of the criteria used, and how they are weighted to make up the final result. In most rankings, for example, salary looms large, accounting for up to 40% of the total. Other important measures, such as the international mix of students and faculty, may carry less weight. The salary criterion measures the increase in earnings after completing an MBA. This assumes that financial reward is a good indicator of business school quality. Some question this. The emphasis on salary has two important effects. First, schools that take younger students – whose salaries tend to be lower when they enrol – are likely to do well. Secondly, it rewards business schools whose graduates go into high-earning sectors. The priority given to salary also assumes that money is a primary motivator for MBA applicants. While true for many, this may not be your chief concern.

This underlines the difficulties faced by the rankers. Trying to come up with a set of universal measures by which all business schools can be judged is an impossible task. Any methodology is likely to be hotly contested by those it does not serve. Throw in national differences and the task of the rankers becomes even harder.

The reliability of the data
Another big issue with rankings is the reliability of the data. In terms of job placements and starting salaries, the numbers fed into the methodologies often come from business schools themselves or from alumni. This has led to accusations of creative accounting. (One ranking has tried to counter this by getting some – but only some – of its figures audited by accountants.) Other data is highly subjective. Rankings that claim to measure customer satisfaction canvass recruiters and recent graduates about such issues as the quality of teaching. But, since recruiters can only judge the outputs and the graduates have no way of comparing what is on offer at other schools, the results are not as helpful as you might think. Worse, this practice encourages MBAs to flatter their schools to improve their showing in the rankings. Other rankings rely entirely on interviews with recruiters nominated by the business schools.

How useful are they?
In the final analysis, all rankings are flawed. Rankers are also prone to tweaking their methodologies. Usually presented as ‘fine-tuning’, these small changes can cause significant movements in the final placings. They have the added advantage of providing something new to write about. But for all their foibles, rankings do serve a useful purpose. They provide a snapshot of business school reputations – a quick study of the market. Beyond that, however, they are a blunt instrument. The trick for those considering an MBA is to use them, but to use them intelligently. That means picking out the information that is relevant to you, and using it as a starting point for your own research. 

Des Dearlove is a business journalist and co-founder of the media content, concepts and consulting business, Suntop Media. A former commissioning editor for The Times in the UK, he contributes to newspapers and magazines all over the world. He is co-author of Gravy Training: Inside the Business of Business Schools (Jossey-Bass, 1999).
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