To pursue higher education in business beyond the undergraduate level means you have plenty of choices to make.
Rankings for universities and colleges of business and business-related programs abound, and can be helpful to students in making those important decisions… to a point. Experts in the field debate about the usefulness of business school rankings -- some colleges aspire to be ranked among the top schools, other institutions disregard them completely. Some rankings scales use criteria that may be completely unimportant to a student deciding on a school, while others can be customized for the student's preferences.
Rankings can be useful to those who want an overview of business education opportunities, but students will make the best school decision by evaluating schools with their own unique and critical criteria.
Whether your goal is to get a graduate degree in marketing, finance, IT, or any other business program (please see MBA Program Rankings), you are sure to find multiple rankings that evaluate programs based on their area of emphasis in business. To pick some possible business schools based on their success in focal areas is a practical use of college rankings, according to David Dodson, Communication Director at the University of Georgia's Terry School of Business.
“Students want to know that a business school is strong in the area they're interested in. Top rankings will break down further into a top ten list of programs in accounting, management, finance, or any other business concentration. That gives students another measure to start the school selection process with,” he said.
The different combinations of evaluation criteria to produce a list of top business schools are almost as numerous as the scales themselves. For example, U.S. News & World Report's rankings are based on multiple factors including student graduation rates, school financial resources, peer assessments, student-faculty ratio, applicant acceptance rates and average GMAT scores. Forbes' rankings are based solely on return on investment, while The Wall Street Journal and Business Week determine their rankings based on recruiters' feedback.
“A lot of rankings are based largely on reputation and perceptions,” said Dodson. “Most survey groups of current and former students, faculty and recruiters to get their results. Not many evaluate more quantitative elements, like admissions criteria and graduation rates.”
Other possible factors that are used to evaluate and rank schools include: faculty research productivity, quality of instruction, employment rates, opinions of students, and more. Data collection processes also range from gathering hard financial data to subjective surveying of the academic community (graduates, professors, and current students).
The importance of a high ranking is very much in the eye of the beholder. However, that beholder might be your future boss. The scales shift significantly based on the criteria used to evaluate schools. So before narrowing the field based on the rankings of one list, you should absolutely know how those program ratings are reached. If the scale looks at multiple elements to determine a program's score, that's great, but cautiously evaluate any rankings that are solely based on a school's reputation among corporate recruiters or professors in the business field.
Still, some rankings scales allow users to toggle qualifying factors and assign the level of importance to each of them, thus generating a unique list of schools that fit their personal criteria. Geoff Davis, Webmaster of PhDs.org, a customizable college rankings website, explained how the site can be modified by users to be especially helpful for their college search.
“PhDs.org uses criteria chosen by the National Research Council in evaluating graduate programs. Unlike most other rankings, we do not use a fixed set of weights for criteria in generating rankings. Instead, you indicate how important you consider each criterion, and then we generate a set of rankings accordingly. A high ranking means that a program is a close match for your own personal criteria.”Davis said that the trouble with popular rankings is that they have difficulty quantifying important factors such as quality of teaching, so they focus on areas that are less relevant, but easier to express with numbers.
“Rankings are often generated by adding things that don't necessarily make sense to add. Probably the most contentious issue is rankings that incorporate some kind of reputational component. Do your raters really know what they are talking about? Are your raters unbiased? Do your raters, who are often administrators, take into account the same kinds of things a prospective student might? How do you quantify reputation?” he said.
But while flawed, rankings are popular among students and students entering a business school want to choose one that is highly ranked. Most universities and colleges make some effort to promote themselves in consideration of rankings, marketing their name and reputation among academic peers, and some even go to such extreme lengths as creating departments solely to increase program standing. Such extraordinary endeavors obviously skew rankings.
“At the graduate level, rankings are selection criteria. They are more important to students than to faculty and staff at a college,” said Dodson. “It's important for us to be ranked in the top 50 because that's a figure many rankings use. We focus on being consistently mentioned; magazines sell based on the movement of schools, but this is an artificial difference among academic programs. When we get students to look at us that way, they find we have a lot to offer.”
No matter how thorough school rankings can be, they will all leave out factors of profound importance to any student making a school decision. For example, rankings cannot evaluate family factors, like whether you have alumni in your family and proximity to family, they cannot evaluate your personal scholarship opportunities, and they are never adjusted for cost of living when looking at the price of the school or comparing salaries of recent graduates.
“Rankings certainly play an important role, but students should look beyond rankings at the content of a program,” said Pam Roberts, Director of Graduate Career Team Services at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. “Talk to the faculty, to the graduate career services group, alumni, and students in the programs.”
In the end, rankings may help you narrow down your list of possible business graduate programs, but are better used as a starting point. When you decide what factors are the most important to you, and find which schools fall in line with your goals, you will make the best business graduate school decision. And, of course, gathering information on a first-hand basis is critical to making a well-informed decision.
“Visiting the campus and program is very important once you've narrowed your list. You want to find a comfortable fit for your living and working environment, so you're leaving a lot to chance if you don't visit the school,” said Dodson.