Graduate Management News

June 2015

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

GMAC Viewpoints: Looking Beyond Rankings

The topic of “rankings” has been in the news lately, which raises some important issues around what they measure and how they should (or shouldn’t) fit into decision making for schools and prospective students.


In mid-May, Poets and Quants published a piece that quoted Bernard Garrette, associate dean of the MBA program at HEC Paris, saying that “rankings are making it harder for schools to recruit and attract more women to MBA programs because they penalize business schools that enroll more women because women are paid about 15 percent less than male MBA graduates.”

Also in May, Daniela Papi, blogging on The Huffington Post, questioned whether rankings were out of alignment with what current MBA students are really seeking to measure. “How is it, in 2015, when many of the most sought-after job placements students are competing for are social impact roles, questions about signing bonus amounts and salary figures are still dictating the quality of our business schools?” she asked.

So what are we to make of rankings? Conventional wisdom holds that students considering business school give great weight, if not the greatest weight, to published school rankings to guide their decision. However, in reality, students place other factors above rankings when selecting a school, according our latest Prospective Students Survey Report.

Our survey reveals that students from all over the world display distinct differences in ascribing what factors matter most to them and the order of importance in which they consider those factors when making decisions about b-school. When students listed their top five consideration criteria for selecting a program based on their preferred study destination, rankings didn't even rank. (Study destination is an important distinction, given that 52 percent of prospective students seek to study outside their countries of citizenship, up from 40 percent in 2010.) Although published rankings do have influence in candidates’ school consideration, prospective students place them as the third most consulted information resource behind school websites, and friends and family.

For years, we have maintained that rankings don’t tell the entire story. We’ve always cautioned prospective students that school rankings are best viewed skeptically. Not only are they arguably hindering recruitment of women to MBA programs, as enumerated in the Poets and Quants piece, but they also do not take into account the unique attributes of your program, your curriculum, culture, and your core relationship with employers, etc., or how these attributes may meet the individual needs of your prospective students. So, what is influencing decision making among prospective graduate management students? It’s what you offer beyond rankings that counts most.

Another point worth noting is that third-party evaluations such as rankings thrive in a world with information asymmetry. When buyers (students) do not have adequate information about sellers (schools), intermediaries fill the gap. This would imply that the rise of ranking is, at least partially, the result of our inability as an industry to effectively get our message to students in a clear and consistent manner. Do we make it too hard for prospective students to understand our programs and the value that they deliver? After all, the consumers of these rankings are among the best and the brightest. They have awesome research skills and analytical mindsets. Why then do they feel the need to go to a simple rank ordering of schools to determine their future? 

“Viewpoints” is a monthly column from GMAC’s thought leaders that addresses trends in graduate management education. In this space, we share our opinions and news commentary on top-of-mind issues facing graduate management professionals. We welcome your feedback. If you would like to suggest a topic, please submit your ideas