The rankings-industrial complex
University rankings are an inescapable fact of applying to college or graduate school. Applicants have a diverse array of priorities and preferences — location and reputation, campus and class size, culture and community, people and prestige, faculty and funding, and a whole lot more. But within those preferences, applicants the world over generally want to attend the best schools they can.
That's all well and good, but what does "best" mean? Part of it is kind of objective. We can measure where the most accomplished professors teach (if we can agree on what "most accomplished" means, I suppose), how many publications and awards those professors have, where undergraduates from certain universities go to graduate school (if we trust which grad schools are the best), what income levels they go on to attain (if you're into that), and all those sorts of things.
But part of it is very subjective. Individuals' views about which schools are "better" than others are influenced by industry, geography, priorities, alumni, demographics, or even the published rankings themselves. When each of us hears the name of a university or graduate school, it evokes a certain thought, good or bad or somewhere in between, but probably not the same for everyone. Schools battle to build their brands, and many admit their classes with an eye toward boosting their ranking.
Over the past few decades, the rankings industry has attempted to transform this subjectivity into something clean, orderly, and easy on the eyes. But with enough college and university rankings to warrant a 10,000-word Wikipedia entry with 213 citations — each with its own methodology — the rankings-industrial complex has exacerbated the very confusion that it originally intended to solve.
The best MBA programs in the world?
When it comes to MBA programs — particularly full-time programs — rankings are an even bigger part of the conversation and decision calculus than they are at the undergraduate level. Applicants are often a few years into good careers, and they're only willing to give up that trajectory for what they deem to be the best of the best schools. Every applicant has their own "would-it-be-worth-it" threshold, and application volume directionally concentrates toward the top of the MBA rankings.
So where can applicants turn to determine whether they're applying to "the best" MBA programs, or the ones they might deem "worth it"? On the MBA front, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, The Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Economist are generally said to lead the rankings pack, with the first two publications focused on the U.S. and the latter three judging internationally.
And what do all of those rankings tell us? In U.S. News & World Report's 2020 MBA rankings — like automotive model years, the U.S. News rankings bear in their title a year that hasn't happened yet — the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) ranks first, Stanford's Graduate School of Business is second, and Harvard Business School, MIT (Sloan) and Chicago (Booth) are all tied for third place.
The Economist, meanwhile, has Booth first in the world and Northwestern (Kellogg) second — ahead of Harvard (#3), Wharton (#4), and Stanford (#5). UCLA (Anderson) ranks 8th, and Sloan is 16th.
Lift up the Businessweek hood — as Poets & Quants' Founder John Byrne has done — and you'll discover, among other things, that Harvard allegedly offers just the 53rd-best MBA learning experience in the country, far behind William & Mary (Mason, #1), Utah (Eccles, #2), UT Dallas (Jindal, #3), Baylor (Hankamer, #6), Tampa (Sykes, #7), Texas Christian (Neeley, #8), and UC Davis (#9). Click around some more and you'll find that Harvard and Wharton rank 11th and 27th in the U.S., respectively, for entrepreneurship — despite, as Byrne points out, leading the field in real life.
Rediscovering the voice of the people
I'm not here to cherry-pick anomalies or split hairs over a few spots in the rankings. After all, the schools at the top of these lists are the elite of the elite, and who is really to say if a certain result is "off" by a couple of places. We all have our views. But there is something to be said about the fact that many of these results do not reflect the reality of which schools MBA applicants would attend over others, or which schools professionals or the general public believe are better than the rest.
Peek back up at some the rankings noted above. Wharton, Booth, and Kellogg are fantastic programs, but it's fairly rare to find an MBA applicant, colleague at your office, or stranger on the street who'd place them above Harvard or Stanford, as all five of the major rankings in some way do. And with all due respect to UCLA Anderson and The Economist, you'd be hard-pressed to find applicants who are interested in both Anderson and Sloan who'd attend the former over the latter.
Somehow, the voice of the people — be they MBA hopefuls, students, alumni, recruiters, working professionals, or the general public — has been lost to the noise of ever-more-complicated methodologies and the ever-expanding rankings machine. (This comes in spite of the fact that many rankings are survey-driven.) Nuance has been lost as well. Maybe some people out there do rank UCLA above MIT. Well who are they? Southern Californians? Media-and-entertainment applicants?
Avanti Prep's 10-minute MBA rankings survey
So how do we marry subjectivity with objectivity, and simplicity with nuance? I invite you to join me in taking this 10-minute survey. The first half simply asks you to rank MBA programs. After that, there are questions related to your familiarity with programs, profession, education, location, and so forth, which will help identify patterns and trends in the rankings (nuance!). (Many are optional.)
There are no complex methodologies, no random ratings to assign without context or adjustment for students' expectations, no reliance on stats that can be gamed by admissions committees (e.g., GMAT or GPA) or don't tell the whole story (e.g., lower employment rates for more entrepreneurial schools), and no incentives for me to produce rankings that are "headline-grabbing" or "different."
As of now, this is little more than a fun experiment, driven by you. The inaugural version focuses on U.S. schools, but everyone in the world is encouraged to participate, whether you're applying for an MBA, already have one, or never want anything to do with one. So have fun and pass the link along!
Greg Guglielmo is the Founder of Avanti Prep
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