MBA rankings: Proceed with caution

Candidates should look beyond league tables to find a course that will suit their needs

SINCE BusinessWeek published its first MBA rankings in 1988, others have rushed to design league tables of their own, rating and comparing different programmes. So where should you study your MBA? According to the FT’s 2013 rankings, Harvard Business School offers the best course, followed by Stanford and Pennsylvania’s Wharton. But The Economist’s 2012 rankings disagree, placing Chicago’s Booth School of Business in the top spot. London Business School (LBS) is fourth on the FT list, but twelfth on The Economist’s.

Look at the 2012 Forbes rankings (which are only released every two years) and you may become even more confused. It ranks schools regionally, leaving candidates to question how Booth – second in its US list – truly squares up against its equivalent in the European list, Insead (a school that comes sixth in the FT, but 19th in the Economist). And then there’s BusinessWeek, which divides its lists into just two categories: US and international.

Turn your attention to how schools move up and down the rankings, and you may start to question their metrics. In 2011, for example, the University of Queensland in Australia leapfrogged 35 places in a single year to rank 46th from 81st in The Economist’s table. In an article at the time, the publication acknowledged that rankings are “controversial,” adding that “to compare a one-year Danish programme with a cohort of 50 students with a two-year American one with 1,000 is tricky. Some would say futile.”

So how seriously should candidates take these rankings? Steve Cousins, admissions manager at Cass Business School, says the danger of such tables is that “they can perpetuate a herd mentality. It is important to remember that rankings give a quick overview, but won’t tell candidates about, for example, the culture of an institution.” Zoya Zaitseva of QS TopMBA agrees. “Rankings are a generic tool that should be used cautiously,” she says. Nonetheless, they can provide some valuable information, and could introduce candidates to programmes they had previously overlooked.

Each ranking places a different weight on opinion surveys of students, alumni and employers. As a guide of different criteria, MBA50 says that the FT places a particular emphasis on salaries achieved three years after graduation; Forbes focuses on return on investment (the increase in salary reported by MBA graduates); The Economist looks at career development; and BusinessWeek measures graduate and recruiter satisfaction.

But looking at historical salary performance may not always be a useful guide. Salary will depend heavily on the sectors that graduates go into, rather than their quality. Those who go on to work in financial services, for instance, could earn more after three years than an entrepreneur, who has forfeited a salary to get their new venture off the ground.

In addition, a business school’s location will have significant impact on this data: LBS is located next to one of the world’s leading financial centres, with many alumni going on to a lucrative career in financial services. Stanford, on the other hand, could give students the opportunity to rub shoulders with Silicon Valley’s finest – thus suiting candidates with entrepreneurship in mind.

Salary increases are also subject to many variables. Younger MBA students, for example, would likely see their earnings jump upon graduating. More worldly candidates, applying for a school that performs well on this metric, may find their classmates lack knowledge or life experience, with limited networking potential. And both measures run the risk of being heavily skewed by the alumni themselves. As a recent MBA graduate told me: “Before graduating, we received an email asking whether we had a job, and if so, the salary. You know your data will go into the rankings, so everyone bumps it up a bit.”

What’s more, he received an email from the school’s dean requesting students reply positively to surveys, “to push the school up the rankings”. He thinks the real value comes from knowing the quality of the alumni, and whether they can help you find a job after graduating. “But this is hard to find out just from a campus visit, so the rankings are all you have to go on.”

But these lists use information on graduates who have been out of schools for three years – often making them out of date. “Programmes are usually tweaked annually according to market needs,” says Cousins. Zaitseva identifies other key considerations – like the fact that some schools may perform poorly in the rankings, but have a top reputation in a particular field. She says it is also important to remember that these rankings are only considering those schools with international accreditation. “Some newcomers may offer world-class teaching, but won’t have accreditation yet.” She cites Skolkovo, a Russian school which is seeing top results in executive MBAs (EMBA).

Indeed, many lists look exclusively at full-time MBA rankings, so may not be the best indicator for top EMBAs or part-time courses. BusinessWeek, for example, ranks Booth first for full-time MBAs, but places Elon University’s Love School of Business top for the part-time course.

Of course, global rankings are helpful – as a guide to students, and as a way for schools to attract talent. And just as these league tables have their ranking criteria, so too should individuals. This means identifying your long-term career goals, location, and the kind of learning environment you want. Then visit the campus, attend admissions events and, where possible, talk to current students and alumni.