MBA Rankings: Why You Should Take Them With A Grain Of Salt

MBA Rankings Critique


It’s MBA and business school rankings season again. US News & World Report just released its annual ranking — or reshuffling — of the best business schools. Stanford GSB and the Wharton School, previously ranked No. 6 and No. 3, are on top once again, tied at No. 1. They knocked the University of Chicago Booth School of Business out of the top spot and into a tie at No. 3 with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. 

There were four ties among schools in the top 10, showing how closely these elite schools compare. And while there were moderate shifts among the familiar schools in the top 25, farther down in the ranks, there were some big swings. University of Pittsburgh’s b-school climbed  39 places from 86th last year to 45th, while Brandeis University dropped 27 spots to 107th place.. More than one in four schools saw their ranking shift by double digits.

This ranking comes just weeks behind The Financial Times Global MBA rankings, where Wharton, which fell out of the 2023 rankings, rocketed back into first place, Harvard Business School fell to 11th place, and Stanford GSB plummeted to a head-scratching 23rd. Universities and business schools are large, complex, well-established institutions that aren’t going to change that dramatically in a year or two. What could possibly have changed to explain those results? 

Rankings are hard to ignore, and their appeal is understandable. You’re making a huge investment in yourself and your professional future, and you want to know that your degree will have value. But the wild shifts in where schools place from year to year raise doubts about their validity. And the sheer number of different rankings can be confusing.

At Fortuna Admissions, we’ve been watching the rankings game for a long time, and we have some advice on how to make sense of rankings, and how to use them effectively. 

Read the Fine Print

One reason behind the dramatic swings in schools’ placements is that the publications and organizations behind the rankings are often tinkering with data and relative weights from year to year. Different data inputs can lead to very different outputs. That’s why it’s crucial to read the fine print behind the numbers, to make sure you understand the methodology and data behind them. 

For example, this year US News refined how they factored in graduate salaries, weighting them by profession to control for common salary differences across industries. This change, combined with reduced emphasis on starting salary at graduation, may have helped boost the Haas School four places into a tie for seventh place with Yale School of Management and NYU Stern. By this new measure, Haas ranked fifth on salaries, even though its average salary and bonus was the lowest of any top ten MBA program at $188,343 – a fact you might miss if you don’t look at the data behind the big number.

To be fair, annual methodology changes reflect a continual effort to improve the value of ranked results. But changes in methodology also may mean that schools’ rankings are at the mercy of the business cycle. Last year, US News changed its methodology so that job placement rates accounted for a full 50% of a school’s ranking. That makes sense, because job placement is a factor that students really care about. 

However, given swings in the economy and employment markets, this factor could have a huge impact in a boom year for finance or a downturn for the tech industry. This could really affect middle-ranked schools. “Are you suffering because your school is sending people into tech careers and the tech sector is laying people off?” wonders Judith Silverman Hodara, a Fortuna co-founder and director.

Watch What They Are Ranking 

As rankings multiply, they are also specializing. Some are ranking schools on specific outcomes, such as career trajectory or return on investment. It’s important to know what the rankings are measuring, what factors go into them, and what is left out. Some rankings may be based on factors that aren’t that meaningful or relevant to you. For example, among the 21 factors blended into the Financial Times rankings are the share of faculty with PhDs and data on the composition of the institution’s board. Those may not have a big impact on your professional future.

As an example of why you should pay attention to what’s missing, the Scheller College rankings rate schools based on return on investment, calculating it based on a ratio of just two data points: median graduate starting salaries and tuition. Initially, the University of Florida Warrington College of Business came out on top as the school that offered the most bang for the buck. Elite M7 schools did not fare so well, because they are quite expensive, and even strong job placement and high starting salaries can’t overcome that. 

However, this measure ignores scholarships, overstating what students may actually invest. It measures ROI only in the short term and leaves out intangibles that may benefit you over time. How can this ranking put a value on Wharton’s alumni network, or the opportunity to make contacts in New York’s finance or fashion industry if you’re at CBS or NYU Stern? 

Don’t Rely on a Single Ranking

The proliferation of rankings can pay off for you. Because rankings all tend to emphasize different factors measured in different ways, you benefit from looking at more than one ranking. Look at enough, and you’ll see some trends emerge, with schools clustering in the top 20, the middle 50, and so on. If you look at past years, you’ll start to notice if a school popped up to excel one year and then faded back to the middle of the pack. 

You can find rankings that rate schools based on their strength in areas that interest you, such as entrepreneurship. Other rankings may rate schools based on their ESG focus or their commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

Take Rankings with a Grain of Salt

No ranking can adequately sum up the full MBA experience into a single number.  “The premise of a ranking —the view that there is a single order in the world of business schools that we should all agree with — is false,” says Diarte Edwards. “There is no one-size-fits-all school. Everybody has a different view about what is important in the quality of a business school. It very much depends, for a candidate, on what they are looking to get out of the experience.

Rankings can’t quantify many facets that matter: where you’ll live, who you will learn from and study with, what experiences will be available, how the school’s culture and community feel to you, and so much more. That’s why rankings should be a single data point in your early research to target your ideal MBA program.

“A top ranking means little if the school is not a good fit for you and your goals,” says Patty Keegan, a Fortuna director and former associate dean at Chicago Booth. “You’re making a significant investment in your future and spending an intensive two years of your life in school, so the culture and environment matter. The fit of the school should never be overlooked, despite all the ranking noise,” Keegan stresses.

Fortuna cofounder and director Judith Silverman Hodara agrees. While the rankings change their weights to prioritize some inputs, what you value as an individual matters more. “The salary you make when you leave might not be as important as who is in your LinkedIn network in the future,” she says. “Does it matter whether it’s 1 or 6 or 10? What matters is if you feel at home. There are so many other things you should be taking into consideration on a personal level that have nothing to do with rankings.”

Diarte Edwards contends that the true value in rankings lies in the full set of data the rankers have conveniently collected for you.“What’s useful about the rankings is that they aggregate useful data about schools, and it’s worth digging into that on the dimensions that matter to you.” 

So, take the rankings with a grain of salt and use them carefully. Being the best business school according to US News, the FT or Bloomberg Businessweek can be very different from being the best business school for you.

See our blog for more advice on how to use rankings effectively. For help in targeting the right schools for you and optimizing your chances of admissions, sign up now for a free consultation and learn what Fortuna’s team of MBA admissions insiders can do for you. 

Matt Symonds is Cofounder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Cohost of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.