Do EMBA Rankings Really Matter?

How much weight should you give business school rankings in deciding where to go for your Executive MBA?

Like most things in life, there is no simple answer. It’s important to remember that there are no perfect measurement systems to determine the best Executive MBA programs. The methodology behind every ranking—whether BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times–has inherent flaws built into them. This goes for our own composite ranking of Executive MBA programs, which at least tends to suppress the anomalies in any one survey. So you need to know what a ranking is actually measuring and whether those measured attributes even matter to you. (See our detailed examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the key Executive MBA rankings.)

You also should know that many of the media brands that rank business schools have tweaked their methodologies over the years, making year-to-year comparisons even on the same ranking tricky business.

Under no circumstances should you choose a school solely on the basis of its ranking in any of these surveys. It is merely one factor among many to weigh. Far more important than a school’s rank is the quality of its faculty and students, the program’s culture and how that environment matches up with your personality, your study habits, and your ultimate professional goals.

Of course, very few people can get into these elite schools. And that’s where rankings become far more valuable because their primary benefit applies to schools that are not universally among the top 10 or 20 institutions. Why? Because that’s where there generally is less information available to make the best decision. Long before there were rankings, for example, there were at least 50 schools that contended they were among the top 25, and 100 schools that claimed they were in the top 50. Rankings, however imperfect, have helped to put more accountability into what business schools claim and are an offset to the slick marketing brochures and websites that make all kinds of claims about the quality of a program, its faculty and your future fellow students.

Even so, rankings perpetuate elitist thinking. The prestige and value of an Executive MBA experience shouldn’t only go to the brand name schools that end up on these lists. There are hundreds of other business schools that can offer you a first-rate education and an invaluable experience. A business school, whether it’s among the top 50 schools or not, is a marketplace of ideas. It is filled with smart people who want more out of their lives and are willing to invest their time, their intellect and their money to get it.

So while an Executive MBA from a brand name school high in the rankings does have more cache, will open more doors and impress far more people, the actual educational experience may only be slightly better than what you could get from a program that fails to make a list of the top 50. As Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told us recently, “Just because it’s Kleenex doesn’t mean it’s the best place to blow your nose.”

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