Rankings are available to show which are the best business schools — for both undergraduate degrees and MBAs. But do the rankings matter? Specifically, should you choose one business school over another based on rankings?
What the Rankings Actually Mean
Rankings rely on statistics of one kind or another. So you need to look into the statistical measures behind the rankings — at least a bit — to understand what the rankings are about.
All business school and MBA rankings differ according to the criteria that the scale uses to rank the programs. A school may be highly ranked on one scale, but ranked low (if at all) on another scale.
Possible factors that schools can be evaluated on include:
- quality of instruction
- research productivity of faculty
- return on financial investment for graduates
- admissions selectivity
- student opinions
- employment rates
- academic peer assessment.
Most rankings look at several different factors and weigh each differently to calculate a college or university’s final composite score. The processes of collecting this data also vary, from collecting hard financial data to subjective surveys of students, graduates, and professors from across the academic community.
“The criteria business schools are ranked on depends who is doing the ranking. Different organizations choose different criteria. Compilations can be derived from categories that include curriculum, program size, career placement statistics, alumni salary, and recruiter rankings. Students should definitely take time to investigate the rankings and the criteria behind them,” said Karen Schweitzer, About.com Guide to Business Majors.
Look for Rankings Explanations
Most ranking systems give explanations of their scoring process. So potential business students can find out why a school was given its specific rank on that particular scale.
- US News & World Report‘s rankings are based on peer assessments, average test scores by students, student graduation rates, applicant acceptance rates, student/faculty ratios, SAT/ACT score averages, school financial resources, and several other measures.
- Forbes‘ ranking is all about the Benjamins, solely evaluating return on investment.
- The Wall Street Journal’s picks come from recruiter feedback.
Students will find it handy that many online rankings can be customized for school location, cost, specific programs, and more to help students see list of the best schools, personalized for them.
What Does a High Ranking Mean?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer! The significance of a high ranking differs based on how each ranking is developed. So, when future business students familiarize themselves with a rankings scale and its criteria, they should keep in mind what obvious differences are made by the factors determining rankings.
Depending on what qualities are most important to a business student for their education, rankings can either be extremely important or very unimportant.
“Because each rankings system uses different criteria, a high ranking may mean different things,” said Nancy O’Brien, Head of the Education and Social Science Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “For example, rankings based on student opinion may be due more to popular instructors rather than return on investment. Students should look carefully at the methodology used for ranking schools and then decide if the highly ranked schools meet their own criteria. Most rankings sites provide their methodology in an easily accessible place.”
The trouble with popular rankings is that they have difficulty quantifying important factors such as quality of teaching, so they focus on areas that are less relevant, but easier to express with numbers. Rankings are often generated by adding things that don’t necessarily make sense to add.
Probably the most contentious issue is rankings that incorporate some kind of reputational component. Do your raters really know what they are talking about? Are your raters unbiased? Do your raters, who are often administrators, take into account the same kinds of things a prospective student might? How do you quantify reputation?
Some Universities Target Higher Rankings
Most universities and colleges make some effort to promote themselves in consideration of rankings, marketing their name and reputation among academic peers. Some even go to such extreme lengths as creating departments solely to increase program standing. Such extraordinary endeavors obviously skew rankings.
Students should also be aware that rankings are very important to some institutions, and those schools and MBA programs will go to considerable lengths to improve their standing. Also, there is no standard to guarantee that a ranking scale is inherently fair.
“Schools that get good rankings tend to be larger schools with strong brand names. Scoring a high ranking is so important to some schools that they employ an actual department dedicated to increasing the school’s ranking on various lists,” said Schweitzer.
In the end, rankings are important to employers and graduates who want to work for them. It isn’t difficult to realize, especially in the business world, where rankings are more heavily weighted.
A school’s standing according to Business Week, Forbes, US News and World Report, or The Wall Street Journal would likely trump other ratings. To get a good idea of how a business school is regarded by the outside world, see where it falls on several ranking scales. It is also wise to consult business graduates and potential employers to see if a specific university’s degree would be viewed favorably in the industry, according to O’Brien.
It is unlikely, however, that any one source could address all the important factors. For students to be ultimately happy with their choice of business schools, they have to bring the qualifying factors that are most important to them to the table.
What Other Criteria are Important for Students?
“Students should carefully evaluate their reasons for attending business school and then do their best to find a program that matches their goals. Personal preference is the most important criteria,” said Schweitzer.
“General business school rankings can’t take an individual student’s specialization or career plans into consideration. These rankings also don’t normally include factors like cost and chances of admission. These factors are important and should always be included in an evaluation of a business school.”
Aspects that are of critical importance to students, such as situation-specific costs (in-state vs out-of-state tuition, scholarship/grant opportunities), proximity to family and friends, and campus setting (urban or online, public or private) cannot be thoroughly accounted for in rankings. Those factors can make all the difference in a student adapting and succeeding in business school.
“Finding an institution that the student feels comfortable with and in which the student can focus on studies is important. Transplanting to a completely different environment can be stimulating and develop many excellent people skills, but it can also take some time to adjust so students should be aware of that,” said O’Brien.
Get Extra Information
Remembering all the important factors to evaluate and comparing them among potential schools can be a daunting task. Students don’t have to make the choice all alone, though. Schweitzer recommended that students take a hands-on approach, and full advantage of their high school guidance counselor.
“Counselors can get you the information you need in regards to admissions, financial aid, and application deadlines. College fairs, college guide books, and campus tours can also help to paint a picture of a particular school. If you want to know what classes are like, you can make an appointment to sit in on a class or two. Speaking with current students and alumni can also be quite illuminating.”
In conclusion, students will make their best choice for an undergraduate business school or MBA program once they’ve gathered as much information as possible and made a decision complementing their own interests and needs.
“Business school rankings are important because they provide additional branding and marketability to graduates. They also give students a place to start when it comes time to choose a school. But rankings can also lull students into choosing a program that isn’t right for them,” said Schweitzer. “Students can make their best choices by taking the rankings into consideration, but not relying on them completely.”