And The Winner Is: Elon? Really?

As business school rankings go, there are plenty of oddly surprising results. But one of the most peculiar ever occurred yesterday (Nov. 10) in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s biennial ranking of part-time MBA programs. The magazine named Elon University’s program the best in the nation.

Who? Elon’s Martha and Spencer Love School of Business in Elon, North Carolina. Not New York University’s prestige part-time program, nor UCLA, Berkeley or Michigan’s superb offering, or the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which also boasts a highly admired part-time cohort.

Not surprisingly, the folks at Elon are thrilled. The school quickly turned out a news release celebrating the triumph. “This ranking is a great affirmation of the work we have been doing to drive the Elon MBA to the highest levels of excellence,” said Bill Burpitt, chair of the MBA program and associate dean of graduate studies, in a statement. “We are especially gratified to be ranked #1 in the student survey results. We are a student-centered program and we are thrilled to have such a vote of confidence from the professionals we are working with.”

But the first question any reasonable observer might ask is, “How is it even remotely possible for BusinessWeek to claim that Elon has the best part-time MBA program in the United States?”

Chalk it up to methodology. Some 70% of the ranking is based on surveys of students and recent graduates meant to measure satisfaction and post-graduate outcomes. Some 30% is based on school provided data that is suppose to measure academic quality, from average GMAT score and amount of student work experience to the percentage of teachers who are tenured and the size of core business classes.

Because student and graduate opinion looms so large in this ranking, it’s likely to be volatile and unpredictable—especially because the differences among the schools are so small that they often are statistically meaningless. Indeed, BusinessWeek counters this problem in both its full-time MBA and EMBA surveys by combining the latest graduate survey with two previous graduate polls. For some reason, it does not do this in the part-time ranking. The result: a wild roller coaster ride. The University of Washington’s part-time program jumped 30 places in this survey to 10th place; Villanova’s part-time program jumped even more–37 spots to end up at a rank of 12th this year from 49th in 2009. This happened even though there were no substantial changes to these two MBA programs since BW last surveyed their students.

And then you have the problem of cheerleading. Because the students know their opinions are used by BusinessWeek to crank out a ranking, they’re more likely to be very positive about their experiences. If you just got an MBA from the Love School, you might be even more likely to show your school some love. Let’s face it: NYU or Chicago part-timers would be far less likely to have self-esteem issues.

Was BusinessWeek snookered by Elon respondents? Maybe so. After all, it strains credulity to think that Elon students would have the absolute best part-time experience of any MBAs in the U.S., especially when competing with such heavyweights as the resource-rich business schools at NYU, Chicago Booth, Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, and others.

Of course, this isn’t the first time BusinessWeek has cranked out an odd result in this ranking. Two years ago, when the magazine last tackled part-time programs, the No. 1 winner was Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts. This time, Worcester fell to eighth place, still ahead of Michigan, Washington, Texas, and the University of Southern California, just to name a few.


Rank & School 2009 Rank Difference
1. Elon University (Love) 6 +5
2. UCLA (Anderson) 2
3. Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) 7 +4
4. Nevada 21 +17
5. UC-Berkeley (Haas) 3 -2
6. Rice (Jones) 8 +2
7. Southern Methodist (Cox) 15 +8
8. Worcester Polytechnic 1 -7
9. Michigan (Ross) 5 -4
10. Washington (Foster) 40 +30
11. Texas (McCombs) 37 +26
12. Villanova 49 +37
13. Loyola Marymount (L.A.) 13
14. San Diego 26 +12
15. Lehigh 35 +20
16. Southern California (Marshall) 19 +3
17. Chicago (Booth) 12 -5
18. Richmond (Reynolds) 17 -1
19. Santa Clara (Leavey) 27 +8
20. Ohio State (Fisher) 20
21. Delaware (Lerner) 36 +15
22. Georgia State (Robinson) 29 +7
23. Emory (Goizueta) 11 -12
24. Texas-Dallas (Jindal) 24
25. Denver (Daniels) 53 -28

Source: Bloomberg BusinessWeek


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