If an MBA is an investment in your future, how can you be sure you’re betting on the right course? Are MBA rankings reliable?

The answer is, not always.  But that’s not to say they don’t matter.  Here are 7 things you should know about MBA rankings.

#1

Not all business schools can take part

To be invited and take part in a ranking exercise, a business school has to meet strict criteria set by the ranking organisation. For example relating to how long the MBA course has been running, what accreditation it has, the size of the MBA class, and the percentage or number of students/alumni/faculty completing the ranking survey.  This automatically filters out a large number of business schools.

Therefore, if you look at a ranking and can’t find a particular b-school, don’t assume it wasn’t good enough to make it onto the list. It may be that it didn’t qualify to take part because of the methodology used to produce the ranking.

#2

The results are affected by what is measured and how

MBA rankings don’t all measure the same things. To start with, some assess MBA programmes, others business schools. Importantly, they may focus on different criteria and assign a different weight to them.

For example, a ranking measuring the benefits of doing the MBA compared to not doing it might look mainly at ‘objective’ factors, like career, salary and network gains by alumni. Another ranking might give more importance to the student experience, the admissions process, and the ‘quality’ of the faculty.

#3

If the results aren’t consistent, they aren’t reliable

What you will find looking at different MBA rankings is that one ranking may have a business school or MBA at #5, but another only in the top 20. Or, the b-school/MBA might feature in the ranking table one year, but not the following year.

Let’s stop and think about this for a minute: If MBA rankings were completely objective and always reliable, wouldn’t the results be more consistent over time and across the different rankings?

How can we explain the fluctuations? Personally, I don’t believe it’s possible for a course or school to change so much within a year or a short period to see a double-digit change to its ranking position, or to be ousted from the list.

Here's a riddle: If #MBA #rankings are reliable, why aren't they more consistent? Click to Tweet

When you see big changes like this, you can almost always safely bet that they are due to changes in the ranking methodology or criteria.

Or, to a lesser extent, due to other business schools becoming more experienced and better at submitting their data, thereby knocking competitors off their jealously-guarded spot.

#4

What is the difference between the top school and the runner-up?

Only hard sceptics would doubt that a business school ranked #1 has done better than the school ranked #15 and much better than the school ranked #60.

But what about the other schools in the top 5? Is Number One superior to the other world-leading, prestigious b-schools that end up in the top cluster but don’t make it to the top spot?

In my view, it’s unrealistic to believe that a single business school or MBA course can be better in everything and than everyone else.

What the #1 rank will tell you is that this particular school/MBA is one of the world’s best.  And possibly that the school was most effective at submitting its data and meeting the ranking criteria.

With this, let’s now look at the two most relevant MBA rankings for UK business schools.

#5

The Financial Times Global MBA Ranking

The Global MBA Ranking is published by the Financial Times and ranks MBA courses from around the world, not just the UK.

To take part, a business school has to be EQUIS or AACSB accredited and must have run the MBA for at least four years. There are other criteria, including in regards to the class size and the number and percentage of alumni responding to the ranking survey. This limits the number of business schools who can submit their data (in 2016 ranking a total of 157 b-schools did).

In addition to the business school, the MBA alumni complete a survey in which they say how much they earn three years after graduation, how long it took them to find a job, and by how much their salary has increased.

A small difference in the data can produce a big difference in the #rankings of #bschools Click to Tweet

Although the ranking is well-respected, let me point out that as you go down the list, the difference between the schools becomes less significant. For example, in the 2016 list, the data differentiation between a school ranked #20 and a school ranked #40 would have been, according to the FT, ‘relatively small”. The same goes for a school ranked #43 and one ranked #85 – they would have been “similarly close together.”

Therefore, don’t assume that a school is far superior to another just because it is ranked higher. That may be true if it’s ranked in the top 10. But not necessarily if you’re looking at a school in the top 50 and are comparing it to one in the top 80.

#6

The Economist’s Which MBA? Ranking

The Which MBA? ranking is published by another respected paper, The Economist, and also rates full-time MBA courses globally. However, while the Economist is respected, the Which MBA? ranking has lost credibility with many.

The ranking is largely based (among others) on the feedback provided by students and alumni about their MBA experience, the quality of the faculty, as well as their career, salary, and networking prospects after graduation.

So, when you look at the ranking you’ll be able to see how satisfied or dissatisfied graduates were with the MBA. But as the ranking is produced with self-reported data that is ‘subjective’ and based on the students’ experience and personal opinion, the results can change (sometimes dramatically) year on year.

If a #bschool doesn't feature in #MBA #rankings, does this always mean it wasn't good enough? Click to Tweet

Therefore, the Which MBA? Ranking isn’t seen as very reliable and some big name business schools have in the past refused to take part in it. This goes to remind you: When a school doesn’t feature in a ranking, there may be another explanation than ‘they weren’t good enough to make it in’.

#7

That’s all fine, but don’t MBA rankings still matter?

MBA rankings are presented and seen as an indicator of quality and value for money. They can matter for a number of reasons:

  • They can affect the type of students a business school can attract. Ambitious, high-calibre applicants will aim for the high-status programmes.
  • The same goes for attracting high-profile faculty members.
  • Business schools will in turn invest resources to ensure a good student and faculty experience so as to continue attracting the best and brightest.
  • Ranking and high-calibre students/staff can be a virtuous circle:  Schools need a good ranking performance to attract those with the right profiles. And the quality of its students and faculty can directly affect a school’s ranking.
  • Famous alumni boost the reputation of a business schools – and this can put pressure on the school to maintain or improve its high ranking.
  • Last by not least, large corporations and investment banks make no secret of the fact that they recruit and hire almost exclusively from a specific list of top-ranked business schools.

Summary

Before we go, I should mention that in relation to US business schools, the US New rankings seem to be widely accepted as being the most reliable.

Do MBA rankings matter? Sure they do. Are they always reliable? No.  You have to read the results carefully. The ranking methodology can lead to a lack of consistency in the performance of business schools and MBA courses over time and across different tables. The data differences determining the schools’ ranking can be quite small.

I would also question whether the pressure on b-schools to achieve or maintain a high ranking position always leads to the best decisions and outcomes for students.

But the key takeaway for today:  Yes, do look at ranking tables but make them one factor in your decision as to which MBA course to choose – not the only factor.

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