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A New Perspective on Business School Rankings

Graduate management education (GME) rankings can be as insightful as they are frustrating

Stephen Taylor is the Research Director for BusinessCAS. Find Steve’s full conversation with John Byrne, the Editor-in-Chief of Poets&Quants, in video, audio or text formats here

Much like my opinion of 2020, my view on business school rankings has been one of both resentment and pragmatism; there’s not much I can do to change either one, despite how much I’d like to. So when I sat down with the patron saint of GME rankings, John Byrne, last month to talk about all things GME, the last thing I expected was to develop a renewed appreciation for these lists.

My understanding, experience and cynicism of and about the rankings were developed through three very different lenses on how they work.

Rankings to Define the Landscape

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work at Harvard Business School in the Executive Education division. My first real exposure to any business school ranking was when the Financial Times published their regular ranking of ExEd programs. I found myself as fascinated by the methodology as I was shocked by my ignorance of the field. In this case, the rankings ended up doing me a great service as a way of defining a big slice of the space, identifying the key metrics and statistics used to evaluate our programs. Rankings gave me some personal sense of institutional pride that, in my own small way, I helped achieve some goal.

Rankings for Recruitment

Transitioning my career from HBS ExEd to the degree side of a school at Thunderbird School of Global Management, my understanding of the rankings completely changed. It was here that I learned the great power of rankings for lead generation, brand recognition, institutional validation with international prospects, and even alumni and corporate engagement. Rarely concerned with anything standard, the culture of Thunderbird focused closely on the specialty ranking for international MBA programs, a ranking they dominated as number one for years. In this case, my understanding of the rankings was deepened to integrate the outsized impact business school rankings can have on institutional momentum and community pride.

Rankings as a Source of Tension

From T-Bird to Sun Devil, changing institutions from the small, private Thunderbird to the very large, public Arizona State University was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Amidst the almost Byzantine matrix of academic units and departments, institutional culture held external rankings in high regard. With rankings across a broad spectrum of programs, the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU was invested in the rankings process on a grand scale. It was here I developed a deeper understanding of the process, the executive team involvement and the practical drivers of the ranking data. The rankings, I saw, were a series of tensions to be managed instead of problems to be solved: the angst of leadership about achieving a ranking pitted against the leadership’s deep understanding of the highly flawed methodology of most rankings; the justified institutional pride in programs and their graduates in conflict with disappointing performance in the rankings; the desire to have a high rank with a desire not to participate at all.

John, with a fairly brief take on rankings, completely shifted my perspective yet again when he said rankings were one of the best things ever to happen to GME. The rankings started out as a way to get information to people who were making a huge financial decision, not only in the tuition of the program, but also in the opportunity cost of foregone earnings. There is no nefarious motive in aggregating information to help people make decisions, and in fact, John suggested there are no other academic disciplines that enjoy the free promotion that comes from having so many publications rank business schools. Many in GME may view the rankings as a Catch-22, a task to be completed that cannot be completed to satisfaction; one of the key lessons of 2020 may be to remember that there are few monolithic issues in our world. Rankings aren’t all bad, despite the woes they cause the GME community, and in fact, John said the development of these rankings is the best thing to happen to GME.

I have to agree with John, and I think you will, too, that while a forced rank of programs will never be perfect, it does provide at least a data-driven baseline. A baseline for prospective students, an imperfect set of targets and a free public relations tool — these were most certainly NOT highlights of my thoughts on the business school rankings prior to this conversation. But it’s important for me to integrate this reminder of complexity into my perspective as I look forward to a new year. And while I cannot suggest that recovering from 2020 is a mere matter of changing perspective, maybe we can count this among the silver linings of the year: a new mantra that says “it’s imperfect, but I can work with it.”

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