MBA Rankings Management

The level of rankings management varies dramatically across business schools.  Since improving a schools rank and quality of education are not 100% aligned, each dean must balance these objectives and set an agenda for the organization.  My thinking is that deans who move up through the academic community are probably more biased towards quality of education than deans who are recruited from industry (e.g., previous CEOs).  There is no clear answer on which philosophy is better for students in the long run, and the best practice is likely some combination of the two philosophies.  For now, I’ll hold off on discussing the pros and cons of rankings management and instead use this post to share some of the practices I have observed at schools focused on rankings.

First, in most instances a school can improve its rank and quality of education with the same action.  Take the IT department as an example.  By providing students with excellent service, the students will provide favorable feedback on the BusinessWeek survey which will in turn improve the school’s rank.  The tough decisions come about when an effort to improve a school’s rank has negative consequences on the school’s quality of education.  Below is a list of such practices that I have observed at different business schools.  To the best of my knowledge, most of these methods are not being aggressively pursued at Darden.

Increase marketing – this is an easy way to improve a school’s selectivity metric, which is a key component for several rankings.  With an effective marketing effort many schools are able to increase the number of applicants.  One school has had recent success with a targeted marketing campaign in India.  My understanding is that the school received significantly more applications from the country yet still accepted the same number of applicants – thus improving selectivity.  The downside of this approach is that by spending more money on marketing there is less money available for other uses.

Increase scholarship money – offering scholarships is an effective way to increase yield.  In addition to the direct rankings improvement from a higher yield, there is a secondary effect from the increase in selectively necessary to maintain a specific class size.  Spending more money on scholarships is one way to increase yield.  Another consideration is how to distribute scholarships.  One top ranked business school provides around 90% of accepted students with a small scholarship of around $5k to $10k.  This is well received by applicants and gives them an additional reason to attend the school.  Another top 25 school has been known to bid for students by increasing the value of scholarship offers as the decision deadline approaches.

Increase focus on research – well published research faculty can significantly improve a schools ranking.  Unfortunately, excellent teaching ability and excellent research ability don’t often go together, and there are very few professors with both skills.  Thus, schools with a strong emphasis on research sometimes suffer in teaching quality.  Some schools relieve their best researchers of the teaching ‘burden’ by providing teaching assistants for use both inside and outside the classroom.

Train students to answer surveys – all rankings use surveys and in some cases they survey current students and recent alumni.  It’s generally against the rules for schools to directly advise students on how to complete these surveys.  However, schools can influence the surveys by helping student groups ‘teach’ other students how to best respond to questions.

Modify class demographics – most rankings consider elements of the class demographics and these elements can be easily altered by admissions.  Some approaches that come to mind include 1) increasing average GMAT, 2) increasing international diversity, and 3) increasing share of students interested in consulting.  While these measures are easy to change, there is often a subsequent negative effect from each initial improvement.  For example, a school might reject a ‘well rounded’ applicant in order to accept an applicant with a higher GMAT score.  This decision may come back to haunt the school if the high GMAT student has trouble finding employment and thus negatively affects the placement statistics at gradation.  Increasing the share of students interested in consulting is an interesting opportunity because this is one of the highest salary industries (bankers have lower salaries and higher bonuses) and the rankings do not adjust for differences in industry preferences between schools.  (I’ve written more on this topic in my MBA starting salary post.)

Schools that focus on rankings management may use these and other techniques to improve the school’s position.  One area worth consideration is how each of these techniques aligns with ones’ goals for an MBA program.  There may be vastly different consequences for someone interested in a top ranked MBA degree compared to someone interested in the quality of their education.

6 Responses to “MBA Rankings Management”

  1. JulyDream says:

    Very interesting post!! Everyone views schools differently and it’s unfortunate how much weight arbitrary rankings carry. To each student looking at rankings, I request that you investigate and understand how those rankings are compiled. Then based on that information, decide how much merit they should hold.

  2. To JulyDream’s “interesting” I guess I would add another word “telos”. My gut reaction to this post is to pull out my philosophy roots from undergrad. The end to which you are oriented (telos) will have radical implications on the approach you take to dealing with (or not dealing with!) your school rankings.

    All students want a good outcome from their time and dollars invested. The question still remains, however, “what does good outcome mean?”. For some people it clearly means “becoming a part of a community that has a consistently high ranking in the BusinessWeek poll. For others it’s more like “opens the most doors for me that wouldn’t have accessible otherwise”, etc.

    For me, I am most interested in a pointy you raised in your second paragraph: “Most of these methods are not being aggressively pursued at Darden”…

    If this is the case, and other schools ARE pursuing these methods, then it would appear that Darden is making a decision NOT to pursue these methods. Do you think this is the result of ignorance? bad strategy? good strategy? Or what?

    I hope to hear your thoughts and welcome the thoughtful conversation that this post has started on grounds.

  3. MGoBlue97 says:

    Bill —

    I think this is an interesting post, but I’m somewhat confused as to your comment that Darden has not made progress to increase the scholarships available to students.

    One of the things that surprised me when I visited Darden this fall was I learned number of full, half, and quarter scholarships that were made to students. The staff commented that it was 150 in total, of which 25% are one third scholarships, 50% are half scholarships, and 25% are full scholarships. Given Darden’s small class size, when you look at it on percentage of students getting significant assistance, it’s almost 50%. On top of this, when you look at other top programs’ web sites, this level of scholarship seems to be much higher. Programs may not necessarily advertise all their money available, so perhaps my last comment is not really accurate.

    The admissions staff didn’t give out the growth path of these scholarships over time, but there was mention that it’s higher than it has been in the past (directionally). To me, this kind of a policy, opposed to spreading the same amount of money in total to all students with an average amount that you recommend, is more effective. One would figure that the students in the lower half of admission to a program are happy to be admitted, and thus don’t need any money to have a decent probability of matriculation.

    Anyways, take care, as a prospective applicant I am enjoying reading your blog.

    GO BLUE

    • Bill Gray says:

      I think you’re right that a more targeted scholarship approach is more effective than spreading the same amount of money over a larger set of applicants.

      Your comment on Darden increasing the level of scholarships seems to be on the money, as our administration has made statements to this effect. I’m not sure if the level of change in scholarships has been openly shared, although it would probably be available for students that ask.

  4. Uravashi says:

    Really an intersting article reagrding business schools.
    It helps in ranking management programs. Every school have to improve its rank and quality of education through various stratagies that you have mentioned.

  5. lallymba says:

    Thanks a lot for this useful post! according to the annual U.S. News & World Report list of “America’s Best Colleges.” The Lally School of management & Technology is ranked 42nd among all national universities.

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