The latest MBA rankings from The Economist are out and people are understandably freaking out about some of the odd placements that you can find in their list. Poets and Quants has already done an impeccable job running all this down, so I am not going to try to repeat all the great work John Byrne already did. But you should definitely check out the P&Q piece on it. What I want to talk about is why I am happy P&Q ran that extensive post on those rankings (rather than dismissing them) and, indeed, why I am happy these Economist rankings even exist.
Whenever you have rankings that are pretty out of the norm (naming HBS the #4 school, putting Stanford outside the top 5, etc.), it is common to see people just dismiss them. Whether it is an EU bias, a weird methodology, an attempt to be contrarian, or whatever the case, clearly The Economist comes about their rankings very differently that what we are used to (and by that I pretty much mean the U.S. News & World rankings). They also present us with a different hierarchy than what "many people" believe is true. A lot of people in and around the world of business schools believe that HBS and GSB are the top two schools, that Wharton, Booth, MIT, Kellogg, and Columbia round out a top seven, that LBS and INSEAD can make a case in that mix, and that you then have a mix of Tuck, Haas, etc. rounding out a national list of about 15 schools or so. And that is a perfect fine rubric and probably won't steer you wrong.
HOWEVER. It can be just as dangerous to assume, over generalize, or subscribe to group think as it is to miss the boat on the consensus. Is HBS really the end-all, be-all? I certainly like that program and know a lot of amazing clients who have gone there, but I also know people who were miserable. Is GSB unassailable? Many of my former clients think so ... others have told me in close confidence it was overrated and that they got their butts kicked by Wharton and Booth grads on readiness when they went and worked at elite firms after graduating. I have literally never had a Booth client that wasn't ecstatic about the choice - based on client feedback, I would be crazy to pick any other school as the #1 MBA program. Should anecdotal evidence (and a small sample size at that) trump more rigorous analysis and evidence? Of course not. But then along comes another set of rankings and it brings to light a few things:
First, it is healthy to consider a new set of rankings because it reminds us that "best" is not always an objective standard.
"Best" can be contextual, it can be personal, it can be situation, and it can have elements of opinion.
Second, seeing a list that goes Booth, Kellogg, Darden, and then HBS is a great reminder that there are quite a few elite schools out there.
It's not *just* HBS and Stanford. It's not even HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, and then a cliff. Even I fall victim to this thinking, but then you see a list like this and you go "oh yeah, Kellogg is pretty fantastic." Of course it is! But if you list it underneath three or four other schools every single time it is listed, well, you start to forget. In other words, by merely rearranging the order of these top national programs, the Economist does us a favor - even if their list is "wrong."
Third, it provokes a closer examination of *all* rankings methodology.
Oh, you don't like their loosey-goosey reliance on "student feedback?" Well, how do you feel about U.S. News placing a massive 25% percentage of its overall ranking on "peer assessment"? Seriously, 1/4 of what makes up the Holy Grail of rankings is based on what a bunch of b-school deans think about the each other's schools. Are you kidding me? If you've ever wondered why the U.S. News rankings don't change much, it's because cognitive bias plays into it so heavily - of course people are going to vote the same schools the best year after year ... they just told each the other the prior year that these were the best. Is that really a more rock solid approach than soliciting student feedback?
Overall, I love moments like this so much because they remind all of us - including me - to take a step back and avoid being a slave to rankings. If you work at a firm that says "go get an MBA from HBS or Stanford and you can come back here to be a VP," sure, fine, put that pressure on yourself. But otherwise, don't get caught staring at the wrong kind of leaderboard. If you are doing value investing, why not make Columbia your #1 choice? They certainly have an amazing program. If you want a tight knit culture out of the rat race and hands-on help with your job search, why not really push for Tuck? If you picture a business plan competition when you visualize b-school, why wouldn't Chicago or MIT be your top two choices? There is no rule we all have to crawl on our hands and knees towards Alston, Massachusetts, or Palo Alto, California. And this ranking reminds us of that.
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