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Wisconsin School of Business reminds us that MBA rankings do rank MBA programs

At last count there are nine different, prominent publications which rank MBA programs, each with their own standards, methodologies and biases. When you consider that there are separate MBA rankings for the U.S. east, west and Midwest schools - not to mention international schools - and that some publications - U.S. news and the Financial Times - also rank popular programs such as full-time MBAs, part-time MBAs, executive MBAs, and online MBAs, the number of actual rankings balloons to dirigible-like proportions. What are students to do with this information overload?

We have written before that some admissions directors and B-school deans - such as Andrew Sama of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business or Ken White, the associate dean of MBA & MS programs at the University Of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School Of Business - have advocated using the MBA rankings as a filtering tool in addition to factors such as academic programming or campus culture. On the surface the University of Wisconsin's School of Business director of MBA admissions William Wait is no different.

"My biggest piece of advice for all prospective students that are considering a full time MBA program is that this is a pretty big investment," said Wait. "You are going to be leaving your job for a couple of years. So go and visit. You'll get a better feel for the different aspects of a program, the culture and community they are building."

Wait's reasoning, along with that of Sama and White, is that while GMAT scores and acceptance rates are easy to quantify, they miss the mark when it comes to actually displaying the quality of the MBA experience at that school.

"When I talk to prospective students I tell them to take [the rankings] with a grain of salt."  - William Wait

"It's really hard for individual rankings to capture all the great things that are happening at all the different schools around the country," Wait said, adding that "some of the rankings do a better job than others."

When is a ranking not a ranking?

Indeed, not all MBA rankings are created equal. According to the executive editor of Businessweek, John A. Byrne, when Businessweek first débuted their MBA rankings in 1988 traditionally high ranking schools didn't make the cut.

Using a new methodology consisting of asking the rarely asked questions - such as, "In classes taken with popular or distinguished professors, how would you rank their accessibility after class?" - in addition to measuring average GMAT scores, Businessweek's rankings upset the traditional ranking order. For instance, Harvard and Stanford both lost out to the Kellogg School and Yale, traditionally a top contender, didn't even make the top 20 list for that year due to "dramatically poor grades" from the school's recent graduates.

In the 2010 article for Poets & Quants Byrne revealed up until that time "rankings relied primarily on the opinions of B-school deans, faculty, or top executives who were asked to name the top programs -- even though they often had only indirect knowledge of many of the schools -- or merely ranked schools on available statistical data."

This is not to say of course that the other MBA rankings are shoddy - while not as old as Businessweek's, Forbes' rankings are based on the ROI of earning the degree, not GMAT scores. While Forbes doesn't measure the same factors as Businessweek, Byrne does admit their rankings can be very accurate and do provide information to a prospective MBA student which can be just as vital as faculty accessibility.

The importance of being important

However, Wait reminds us that with a focus on what separates MBA rankings it is possible to forget that MBA rankings actually do rank MBA programs.

"I do think [rankings] are important," Wait said, "I advise prospects to know what is important to them. If [job] placement is important to them they can look at rankings for that and see where people are getting placed and what salaries they are earning. If student satisfaction is important there are rankings that only look at that. If geography is the most important there are rankings for that."

"In the aggregate I think most of them try to track things that are important to schools," Wait added. "Are you placing people into great jobs? Are you placing students in jobs within a few months of graduation? Are you delivering high student satisfaction? Are your recruiters satisfied with the students you are producing?"

Wait also reminds us that while an MBA program's rank in the Economist shouldn't be the only factor to consider when deciding upon an MBA program the rankings are important to a school's alumni and faculty as well as company recruiters. However, when deciding where to go, they aren't the end of the world.

"When I talk to prospective students I tell them to take [the rankings] with a grain of salt because it's very hard for them to capture some of less objective things that happen within a program," said Wait.

Interview with William Wait, director of MBA admissions at the University of Wisconsin's School of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, June 2013
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
"Should community matter more to MBA students than the ranking?", MBAPrograms.org, 2013
"Turning the Tables: Ranking the MBA Rankings" Poets & Quants, John A. Byrne, 2010 - http://poetsandquants.com/2010/06/28/turning-the-tables-ranking-the-mba-rankings/