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Business schools push back against annual rankings

Rankled by a system they say does not reflect their true value, a number of universities are pushing back against annual business school rankings.

Academics from more than 20 business schools participated in a research paper to be published this month in the journal Decision Sciences that questions the methodology and purpose of numerical ranking systems employed by several publications.

Chief among their concerns is the use of numerical rankings, which they feel are flawed and weighted too heavily toward income.

"How is it you combine that data and say there's a No. 1, there's a No. 2, there's a No.3?" said Kenneth Brown, associate dean of the undergraduate program in business at the University of Iowa, who contributed to the study. "The reality is that often that's done arbitrarily."

Bloomberg Businessweek, for example, has ranked full-time MBA programs in the U.S. since 1988. The current methodology focuses on "how well the programs prepare their graduates for job success" and is comprised of five elements: employer survey (35 percent), alumni survey (30 percent), student survey (15 percent), job placement rate (10 percent), and starting salary (10 percent).

The 2016 survey, published in November, ranked Harvard the top MBA program, followed by Stanford, Duke and the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management was ranked No. 9.

Both U. of C. and Northwestern declined to comment on criticism of the rankings.

Brown also teaches at Iowa's graduate business school, which is ranked No. 35 by Bloomberg. No Illinois school was represented among the 21 participating in the research paper, which was especially critical of methodologies that put "substantial weight" on the importance of average base salary at graduation, rewarding schools that place graduates in the financial sector.

Francesca Levy, who heads up business school coverage at Bloomberg, defended the survey's methodology.

"We strongly believe in both the service our business school rankings provide, and the validity of our methodology," Levy wrote in an email. "Our ranking aims to answer a key question on the mind of many prospective students: Which B-schools are best at getting their graduates good jobs that set them on strong career paths?"

Critics and proponents alike agree that the business school rankings are influential. Not surprisingly, most of the schools questioning the methodology of the rankings were closer to the middle of the pack in the Bloomberg list.

But dissenters extend beyond the 21 schools that contributed to the research study.

"The best universities are the ones that provide the most value added to their students," Sam Rosenberg, interim dean of the Heller College of Business at Roosevelt University, said Thursday. "There is no way to capture that in the surveys that are done."

Roosevelt does provide requested data to participate in the academic rankings but didn't make the list of Bloomberg's top MBA programs. Rosenberg said Roosevelt doesn't have the status to buck the system.

"The schools that could withhold the data, if they chose to — and they don't — are the schools with the highest status," Rosenberg said. "They don't withhold the data because they are ranked high."

Bloomberg calculates the average "real cost" of attending the 87 full-time MBA programs that made their list at nearly $250,000, including forgone wages during the two-year programs. Choosing the wrong school could be a costly decision.

"When living costs are factored in, students can spend as much as $300,000 on an MBA," Levy said. "We think they deserve reliable information about the return on that investment."

Brown said the purpose of the research paper is to "start a conversation" and shift the focus to more "useful information" for prospective students — minus the numerical rankings. That includes a call to potentially opt out of the current annual surveys.

"I do think that there are a lot of schools that just should not participate," he said.

While Brown understands that top-ranked schools are unlikely to protest or even try to change a system that helps them recruit top students, he believes some students would be better off at Iowa than Harvard — if they could get past the numbers.

"Every school has strengths and weaknesses," Brown said. "Each one may be No. 1 for a particular student with a particular interest."

Twitter @RobertChannick

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