By Ashok Som, Associate Dean and Director of the Global MBA
During the last ten years, business education as an industry has grown in leaps and bounds and so has ranking as an ancillary industry. Ranking business schools follows some statistical criteria but also is an art. There is much to gain for the media outlets that publish them such as The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes, and The Economist, as well as many non-English and private publications and internet education portals. In Europe, The Financial Times is the most referred to as they publish at least 6 different ranking of different programs all the year round.
As education becomes more and more global, accreditation and rankings are two important criteria that prospects look at. Prospects from far away nations (especially from emerging economies) usually do not have the time and the resources to travel to the US or Europe to do campus visits to actually supplement their research while choosing business schools. So how do they chose or short-list the business schools to which they apply? My experience of starting the Global MBA of ESSEC Business School, which is a one-year, full-time post-experience MBA program, in a super-saturated market tells me that the primary criteria for these students include ranking, accreditation, average GMAT, price, financing, and reputation based on word-of-mouth from friends and colleagues. These are the starting reference points when prospective students start their short-lists.
Ranking is a necessary evil for business schools. Because business education has become global in nature, one cannot be outside the rankings that provide prospects a first impression of business schools. On the other hand, if and once ranked, the position in the rankings might not reflect what the individual schools feels they are worth. Ranking represents a danger in that the methodology used, such as survey tools, might create response biases, data point selection biases which can provide diverse results. Also the rankings process is resource intensive and repetitive. Once one is inside the game, one needs to play it year after year. And the rules of the game can change a school’s focus from providing sustainable quality education, rich in pedagogy and experiential learning to matching criteria defined by the media.
My take on rankings has been that within the diverse multitude of information that exists between different programs, numbers simplify and make it easy to get noticed. They are just a starting point. The most important criteria for us are the VALUES of the school and the program. Those are the core competencies of a school that are valuable, rare, and difficult to replicate or substitute in the short- term. After the initial screening of schools is over, it is also important that students consider carefully the type of environment in which they are ready to invest.
How to interpret the rankings and how to understand their limitations
Continuing from the above discussion, one must interpret and use the rankings not only intelligently but also with caution. Otherwise one risks comparing apples and oranges. For example, not all of the rankings available today differentiate based on the duration of the program, be it full-time MBA, EMBA, MSc., etc. Thus a one-year program and a two-year program are ranked in the same category. If not properly taken into account, this means the price, opportunity cost, career opportunities, internship opportunities, etc. are all skewed in the decision-making process.
The best way to understand the rankings of business schools is to try to understand the criteria and the limitations.
Understanding the criteria and making the choice:
1. Understand the criteria of rankings of different media publications. Note them down. Make a
comparative table of the rankings that you want to follow to start the selection process.
2. Note down your criteria of choosing a set of business schools where you want to spend 1 or 2 years
of your most valuable time.
3. Match your personal competencies with both the above criteria.
4. Prioritize your own criteria in terms of the objectives you want to achieve in your MBA program.
5. Go back and fine tune the schools that match with your objectives and the value system that you
believe you will be comfortable with.
Understanding the limitations:
1. Criteria differ from ranking to ranking. The rank is how good the fit is between the school and the
criteria defined by the media publication, not necessarily how good the school is.
2. Ranking involves data collection. Whatever the data collection methodology (surveys, interviews,
archival data, etc.) it is ultimately a statistical model. This data generally has a positive bias as the
respondents of the data collection are mostly alumni of the school.
3. Ranking data does not match your personal requirements and your individual definition of business
4. Ranking also does not measure the subjective measures and the values of the school.
5. Overall ranking cannot identify the strengths of a school in functional and particular research areas
and fields of expertise such as Chairs / Institutes.