Beyond measure: Do b-school rankings really matter?

They’ve been called beauty contests, brag-a-thons, and a head-scratching mess, but you’re still not likely to find a b-school dean who says rankings are worthless. Which rankings? The ones bequeathed by publications like Bloomberg Businessweek and U.S. News & World Report. Here are some insights on weighing the numbers from two W. P. Carey deans.

For starters

“Rankings give an objective view of different schools on the same criteria,” says Joan Brett, associate professor of management and associate dean of graduate programs at the W. P. Carey School of Business. “They do an excellent job of synthesizing a lot of information” that would be tough for an individual to collect and compile, she explains.

Still, “There is wide variation in what criteria different rankings use,” says Kay Faris, the W. P. Carey School’s senior associate dean of academic programs. “One is based solely on a survey of business school deans. Some survey alumni or students. A few look at student quality or starting salaries after graduation.”

Following the money

That last criterion may not be of much value to students who aren’t headed to high-priced cities or top-paying jobs, Brett notes. “If you know you want to get a job in Phoenix or in an industry that isn’t the highest paid, would you care about a school that feeds students into finance jobs in New York City?” she asks. Starting salaries depend on job location and industry.

On the other hand, interpreting ranking criteria can be revealing. For instance, Financial Times measures “salary increase,” or the difference in average alumni salary before and after earning an MBA. “That tells you at what level students are coming into the program,” Faris says. If incoming students are making $70,000 or more, they’re probably coming to school with more business experience and expertise than students who make $30,000 annually, she explains.

Another factor to consider: reputational bias. “It takes a long time for a school to lose a positive reputation,” Brett says, which means “a younger business school like ASU will have a harder time.” Started in 1955, the W. P. Carey School is only 62 years old. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Business School, MIT’s Sloan School of Business, and other top players are approximately twice that age.

One area where Brett does see rankings having an impact is in faculty recruitment. “Before I joined ASU, I worked at a school that broke into the top 25,” she recalls. “The next year, we had a higher caliber of faculty applying for our jobs.”

Is what counts counted?

What should students look at in the rankings ... if anything? Consider what you value, not simply what the rankings evaluate, says Brett. “We get seduced into focusing on criteria that aren’t in our value set,” she notes.

“For example, what do you want to do when you get out?” Brett continues. She suggests you consider your career specialty, such as marketing or IT, as well as where you want to live and work. “If a student picks a school that is high in the rankings but doesn’t attract recruiters from her chosen part of the country, that won’t work out well.”

Along with rankings, Faris advises students to “find a school where the academics fit, the culture fits, the fellow student interaction fits, and the programs fit.”

Opportunity is a big factor to consider, too, she adds, noting that she loved her small Midwestern college, but the opportunities at ASU “eclipse” what it could offer. Torn between a big school and small one, Faris offers this wisdom she learned from a parent: “You can always take a large school and make it small, but you can never take a small school and make it large.”

Most importantly: Remember that rankings are only one of many factors to consider when picking a business school. “Rankings provide one piece of information, not the total picture.”

The ultimate report card: Business school rankings

If you listen to the buzz, you might think the business school rankings are report cards and that schools are competing to be valedictorian. It’s true, some rankings report objective data — such as student GPAs and starting salaries — but not every ranking does so, and some are based solely on reputation.

Some rankings, such as the U.S. News & World Report’s undergraduate list, are reputational — based on a survey of U.S. business school deans only. The Financial Times’ global MBA ranking, however, combines surveys from alumni with quantitative measures from MBA programs, such as employment rates and class demographics.

Many rankings include data from questionnaires sent to students and alumni. A minimum number of students and alumni must complete the surveys in order for the school to be included, meaning their participation is imperative for schools hoping to place high in the rankings. However, schools encouraging alumni and students to complete rankings surveys generally is forbidden, to prevent skewing the data. If any institution understands the importance of valid data in research, it is a business school.

Whether you’re shopping for a school or are curious about where your alma mater stands compared to other schools, rankings are a fascinating subject. These charts break down the categories of data collected and when student or alumni surveys are used by rankings organizations. So watch your email — you can have a direct impact on business school rankings.

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Photo: Senior Associate Dean of Academic Programs Kay Faris dances down the aisle on the way to the stage of Wells Fargo Arena during the W. P. Carey convocation. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now