It's Rankings Season!

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Every fall brings that time of year that most b-School administrators have come to dread - the annual b-school rankings. This year is no exception. Within the past several weeks, both the Financial Times and Business Week have published their rankings of the world’s top EMBA programs. So, how should a prospective student interpret and use these rankings in his or her decision process?

The absolutely wrong way to use the rankings is to assume that any single ranking is an accurate reflection of the relative “quality” of a school or program. Given how the rankings are created and the differences in what they measure, no single ranking can ever adequately capture all the nuances of what makes a business school program the right one for YOU. For example, the Financial Times top four programs are all “joint” programs - developed in partnership between two or more institutions. Clearly, the FT ranking methodology allows joint programs to do well - in most cases much better than the partners do on their own. For example, how is it that the Columbia/LBS program can be ranked number 3, when LBS’s own EMBA program is number 8 and Columbia’s is number 9?

Another issue with the rankings is the fact that so much of their data is self reported. Whether provided by the schools themselves or by students or graduates, there is a clear incentive to “shade” the data just a bit to make your school look better. The level of objective, verifiable, unbiased data varies from ranking to ranking, but no ranking provides a truly accurate assessment of a school’s quality - no matter what they would have you believe.

The final objection I have to the rankings is that they suggest that there is one “right” school for everyone. Clearly this is nonsense. Students have different learning styles, career ambitions, personal circumstances and, as a result, may seek very different attributes in a school. Trying to come up with a single, ranked list ignores these differences and does a disservice to those students who are trying to find a program that fits them.

So, how should you use the rankings? Are they valuable at all? In spite of their weaknesses, the rankings can provide useful information about schools. But you have to use them appropriately and recognize their limitations. You can’t simply look at the rank itself. There are two approaches that I think you’ll find useful. First, take a look at a broad cross section of rankings and look at them over time. There are many publications that rank business schools and they cover many different school characteristics. By looking at multiple rankings and assessing trends over time, you’ll get a broad sense of the school’s performance level and where it’s headed.

The second way rankings can be useful is by looking at specific data elements that may be important to you. For example, if you’d like to attend a school with a high percentage of women faculty members, the FT ranking provides information on faculty composition. The details of the rankings are often more useful than the overall ranking itself. (However, you still need to recognize which information is self reported and might be biased).

For better or worse, the business school rankings are here to stay. Used appropriately, they can be helpful, but they shouldn’t take the place of your own in-depth research. Talking with students, alumni, and faculty and visiting campus will provide much better information for making your decision.