What Do Program Rankings Mean to Prospective MBAs?

In the Feb. 14 & 21 issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell discusses college rankings in an article titled “The Order of Things.” He’s not a fan of the practice, to put it mildly. (A New Yorker subscription is required to read the whole article; if you don’t have one, you can read a good discussion of the article on Poets and Quants.)

The article focuses primarily on the college ranking system used by U.S. News. (Full disclosure: I write a blog for their website.) Gladwell takes issue with some of the factors U.S. News considers in its rankings, such as instructor’s rate of pay; he argues that one can’t assume that professors who are paid more are necessarily better teachers. He also takes umbrage at the factors left out of the rankings: tuition rates, for instance, which Gladwell says penalizes institutions that merge quality education and affordability.

Another of Gladwell’s main points is that these rankings often reward prejudices: The participants ranking institutions will often rely heavily on a university’s reputation (and previous rankings) to make their assessment. So the rankings create a self-fulfilling prophecy and don’t allow mid-ranked institutions to move up in the ratings, even if they deserve to.

However, I believe it’s important to note that these prejudices existed long before U.S. News began ranking universities. Furthermore, if the rankings reflect these prejudices, then that in itself makes them useful to prospective students, especially in the MBA world. A degree from an elite MBA program can enhance everything from a graduate’s networking opportunities to starting salary. So it’s important to know which schools enjoy these reputational prejudices.

However, as the article makes clear, rankings are not the only thing that matters – far from it. If you’re a prospective MBA, you should decide the factors that will play a role in where you apply: cost, location, program specialties, faculty’s areas of expertise and so on. Keeping these factors in mind as you research specific programs will help you hone in on the ones that are your best fit. Most likely, your list will contain a few under-the-radar programs that aren’t at the top of the rankings ”“ provided, of course, that reputation isn’t the only factor that matters to you.

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