For the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business, a funny thing happened on the way to a top-30 spot in the 2017 U.S. News and World Report rankings of online MBA programs. Initially ranked 29th in a four-way tie with George Washington University, Oklahoma State, and the University of North Dakota when the rankings were released January 9, a week later Illinois had suddenly disappeared, replaced by a somewhat cryptic note: “University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign has changed from being a ranked school in the 2017 edition of Best Online MBA Programs to an unranked school based on communication between the school and U.S. News.”
A mystery! We decided to investigate.
Poets&Quants readers may be familiar with the Illinois program from a story we published about it in October 2016. Knowing the innovative and dynamic nature of the Illinois program, we wondered what could have prompted U.S. News to remove it entirely from the ranking, which contains 179 total schools ranging from the biggest and most popular to the smallest and least well-known. So we called Raj Echambadi, senior associate dean of strategic innovation, to get the scoop.
Turns out, Illinois asked to be removed from the ranking. And not for reasons you might guess.
A SURPRISE INCLUSION
Illinois’ online MBA program launched in January 2016. In October, around the time of P&Q’s feature on the “iMBA” program — and with about 114 students signed up and half a dozen faculty teaching them — the school submitted data to U.S. News to be included in a program profile page on the magazine’s website. So far, so good. As far as the school was concerned, Echambadi says, “We were under the understanding that we wouldn’t be ranked because we were less than one year old. We were seven or eight months old when we submitted the data, and we had incomplete data by the U.S. News parameters for inclusion in the ranking. We had only one-fourth of the data.”
“U.S. News and World Report interprets slightly differently,” Echambadi says, “so when they have their ranking, it says ‘2015-2016 academic year,’ so technically we filled out the 2015-2016 academic year and it triggered that we were more than a year old.”
Oops. But from the school’s perspective, 29th being better than 30th, which is better than 31st, etc. — so why not just let it go and reap the benefits? No way, Echambadi says.
“The reason why we asked to be unranked, was because it was fundamentally based on incomplete data,” he says. “There’s a huge number for three-year graduation rate, and for us it was zero — we were only six months old. And there are other stats like one-year retention rate, etc. But more importantly, we had 25 people signed up to do the iMBA, but we only submitted data about six people because at that point in time only one-fourth of the program had been through. And you must have at least 10 faculty members to get a ranking, and we were only seven. Hence we felt this incomplete data put us at a disadvantage because we hadn’t had a graduating class or a full cycle of faculty.
“It did not reflect the true picture, if you will, so we asked them to unrank us, and they accommodated our request.”
Timing contributed to the snafu. Communication between U.S. News and Illinois was snarled by the holiday break, when just about everyone at Illinois was on vacation. The first time anyone at the school saw the ranking was when it was released.
At that point Echambadi, who is also the Alan J. and Joyce D. Baltz professor of business administration at Illinois, and others called the magazine. When he spoke with an editor whose name he doesn’t recall, “they were very gracious, they understood what the issue was,” he says. “They said, ‘Hey, out of 179 programs, for a program that is only six months old you have done very well,’ and I said, ‘That’s not the point — the point is, it is based on incomplete data. If we had ranked No. 100 and it was complete data, I can live with it.’
“So the fact of the matter was, it was incomplete data, it did not give a true picture, and hence we needed to be removed. And they removed us over that weekend.”
GET BACK TO US IN A COUPLE YEARS
Illinois’ iMBA turned heads last year when its price tag was announced: $22,000, or a fraction of the cost of bigger online programs like Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School ($122,880), the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School ($104,610), or USC’s Marshall School ($92,702). The program also boasted a partnership with Coursera that at the time was the teaching platform’s first accredited online MBA.
Moreover — and perhaps most appealingly — the Illinois iMBA also requires no GRE or GMAT scores from applicants. That and the low price tag are part of an effort to expand who can pursue graduate business education, Echambadi says. “We created a degree with online experiences that was new and unique,” he told Poets&Quants in October. “At a broader level, we have created a new definition of what a global MBA means. We have redefined who an MBA student is.” In five years the school hopes to have as many as 1,500 students signed up at once — an enrollment that would put it in the rarefied company of such top programs as Massachusetts-Amhert’s Isenberg School (1,289 students), Kenan-Flagler (1,047), and Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School (869).
The Illinois’ iMBA welcomed its third cohort in January 2017. But because it takes 23 to 36 months to complete the program, Illinois won’t have any graduation data for U.S. News until the 2019 rankings are being compiled. And despite what he sees as the ranking’s bias against innovativeness, Echambadi says the school expects to do more than qualify.
What position will they reach? After all, with only one-quarter of the data, Illinois still landed 29th this year.
“I absolutely believe we’ll be in the top 10,” Echambadi says.