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Should a school's community matter more than ranking?

We've written before about the overwhelming number of MBA program rankings and the situation students can face when trying to decide upon a school using rankings alone. Some admissions directors and school deans feel that MBA rankings, while valuable, are weighted too heavily during a student's selection process at the expense of other more important factors. Such factors include student fit and program specialization. One administrator who aligns with this view is Ken White, the associate dean of MBA & MS programs at the University Of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"I have kids that are in high school and getting ready to go to college, and a lot of the other parents come to me and ask 'what do I look at? Which ranking is the best?' And what I say is; 'don't look at just one, pick up three or four,'" White said, noting that looking at multiple rankings can still be sound advice when looking at graduate schools. "I think a high quality school will be in the top 30, top 40, top 50 in all of the rankings."

"But to make that a sole source is a huge mistake," White adds.

White continues that while the rankings have gotten a bad rap in recent years, primarily a result of trying to quantify the unquantifiable, if a school has been ranked in multiple rankings chances are the school offers a high standard of education.

"The rankings get a knock, maybe because it's tough to quantify the quality of a school because a great school for you might not be a great school for me," he added. "But that being said I think that the schools in [the rankings] are probably worth a look."

"If you come here, you have to help your classmates as well, you can't just be on the receiving end."  - Ken White

While rankings can help students determine the validity of a school's programming or the quality of education they might receive, they are little help in revealing the school's other aspects such as program offerings and the campus culture. This can require digging into a school's offerings, talking to alumni or visiting the school.

"The next step is to visit and get the fit, see if you feel comfortable there, if they are teaching what you feel it is that you want to learn, if they are going to give you the opportunities you need, do they have the right corporate connections, what is their alumni base like, and so forth."

This idea of student-school fit mattering as much as the school's rankings - if not more - is nothing new. Notre Dame's associate director of admissions Andrew Sama said he thinks students should consider the other aspects of a school higher than the school's rankings.

"I think if you use the rankings as a filtering tool to help you discern what programs do well in ways that [you] might be interested in, that is going to help you," Sama said. "I think where students get into trouble is when they use it as a selection mechanism."

But don't all schools have a campus community and offer similar degree programs? While it is true that some schools' programming can look similar, and all schools have their own community, major differences can still be found. According to Sama, unlike other schools Notre Dame places an emphasis on teaching business ethics as a corner stone to every master's focus and, according to White, the Smith school fosters a community of collaboration.

"It's such a supportive environment here, unlike I've seen anywhere else," White said. "When we have admissions functions or when prospective students visit they don't necessarily talk about the building or the classes or the faculty or the staff or the location, they always talk about the community. They are surprised by it and excited by it."

"But," White added, "with that comes some responsibility, and we tell them that if you come here, you have to help your classmates as well, you can't just be on the receiving end."

While school fit might not be easily quantifiable, and the salmon colored financial times might not publish in depth rankings on school fit, it shouldn't be overlooked. After all, a full-time student may be spending two years or more on campus. According to White, if the student feels out of place, or lacks the desire to make a contribution to the school, those can be a long two years.

"What we tell our students is once you walk through that door, you are married to the Robert H Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and divorce is not an option," White said. "For the rest of your life we are all tied together, so you have to feel good about that [relationship]. You really have to feel like you want to be there."

"If you aren't comfortable, if you don't feel like you are part of the community I think that can adversely affect your entire experience," he added.

Interview with Andrew Sama of the University Of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, May 2013
Interview with Ken White, the associate dean of MBA & MS programs at the University Of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School Of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, June 2013
"How to Use MBA rankings: Notre Dame Offers Some Advice", MBAPrograms.org, 2013
"The Wisconsin's School of Business reminds us that MBA rankings do rank MBA programs", MBAPrograms.org, 2013