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The MBA Rankings Debate

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As reported earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal, deans and research faculty at more than 20 business schools are urging their peers at other schools to refuse to participate in academic rankings published by leading media outlets such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the Financial Times, and the Economist.

“Rather than ‘acquiesce to methods of comparison we know to be fundamentally misleading,’ the administrators are urging their peers at other schools to stop participating in a process they say rates programs on an overly narrow set of criteria,” read the Journal article, published May 9th.

Deans and faculty from USC Marshall School of Business, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, and OSU Fisher College of Business are among those protesting the approaches used by media outlets to aggregate multiple factors into a single ordinal rank—and they are airing their grievances in the form of a research paper scheduled for publication in the May issue of Decision Sciences Journal.

“There’s big value in holding schools to the same standard and measuring them against the same, transparent criteria so students can make a better-informed decision,” Bloomberg Editor Francesca Levy told the Journal, in defense of the annual ranking she helps produce.

Elliot Bendoly, an associate dean at Fisher who co-authored the upcoming research paper, argues against that notion. “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,” he told the Journal.

Those of us here at Clear Admit see some merit in both sides of the argument. “On the one hand, the schools may have a point,” says Clear Admit Co-Founder Graham Richmond. “Why should a news outlet rank them on ever-changing criteria?” As Clear Admit has long counseled, applicants are best served when they use rankings as one of many factors they consider in the process of determining which programs best fit their individual needs and goals. And understanding the methodology behind each ranking—and how the criteria used compare to what the individual applicant considers most important—is critical.

But the reason that so many applicants seek out rankings—and so many outlets seek to publish their own spin on them—is because they do provide a starting point of sorts for understanding the overall landscape, which includes hundreds of business schools of varying quality as measured by dozens of criteria.

Maybe there is a better approach to rankings—one that is more fluid and less ordinal, suggests Richmond. “We think that a tiered ranking system makes a lot more sense,” he adds.

Clear Admit’s Alex Brown—who argues in favor of a unique tiered ranking system in his book, Becoming a Clear Admit—explains his reasoning. “I think tiers are important because there is so much energy spent arguing which school is better than another, when in reality many schools are too similar in overall quality. It becomes a ridiculous debate,” he says. “Take for example, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, and MIT Sloan. They are all great programs. For one candidate, Booth might be the best option, but for another candidate it could just as easily be Sloan. What becomes more important in this case is cultural fit and career goals, not ranking.”

Will the latest revolt against rankings led by Fisher’s Bendoly and others prompt enough schools to opt out to have an impact on the rankings themselves? Probably not. But is there room for a better ranking? We think so.

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