Online MBA Rankings: An Overview

Rankings, a very powerful tool, have an opportunity to drive positive change to the curriculum

The proliferation of online learning sparked by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a whole host of students switching to digital degrees. So what is the best course to choose?

For Online MBA programs, rankings are one of the most widely used proxies for quality graduate business education. Rankings are one indicator, but it’s important that they aren’t the only factor you consider when choosing an Online MBA.

“Studying online provides virtually infinite choice, so the competition among programs is ever more apparent,” says Eric Cornuel, president of EFMD Global, the leading European business school accreditation agency.

However, he says “the qualitative measurement they rely on does not accurately represent the complexity of the business education landscape”. Pedagogy, specialization, career services, accreditations and certifications provide a better representation of the actual quality of a program and its fit to an individual’s needs and career aspirations, says Cornuel.

A 2019 report from the Association of MBAs and Business Graduates Association asked: are MBA rankings fit for purpose? The industry groups between August and September 2018 surveyed 1,328 stakeholders including MBA graduates, students and business school leaders.

It found the most accurate rankings are produced by The Financial Times (79 percent), followed by The Economist (75 percent), Forbes (72 percent) and The Times Higher Education (70 percent), according to the respondents.

More than nine in 10 said rankings influence demand for MBAs, but just 11 percent thought rankings reflect the true performance of an MBA.

In terms of Online MBA rankings specifically, the Financial Times publishes one annually, and others are published by US News, Poets & Quants, QS Top MBA, and others. These lists tend to be far smaller than full-time MBA rankings, which reflects the size of the online market.

Online MBA rankings: issues to be aware of

A key criticism of MBA rankings is the narrowness of criteria in the methodologies and lack of transparency about how it’s selected, while the metrics don’t necessarily reflect what matters most: they tend to over-rely on salary growth. “MBA rankings are seen to be out of touch with the delivery of MBAs on the ground,” the report said.

Cornuel says: “I am pleased to see the openness of different ranking agencies, especially the Financial Times, who have engaged in a pan-industry discussion to diversify the ranking criteria.”

He says league tables should broaden the methodology to consider the impact on society, ethics, responsibility, sustainability, a more diverse research output, teaching quality, internationalization, adoption of technology in teaching and learning. “I realize that quantifying these elements is far from straightforward, but we will be happy to collaborate with the ranking agencies in this effort.”

Rankings are a very powerful tool. According to an EFMD study with CarringtonCrisp, 67 percent of prospective student respondents said rankings were the most important pieces of information they look for on business schools’ websites, other than course information. 

Says Cornuel: “The mandate the ranking agencies hold and the influence they exert comes with responsibility. Giving more or less weight to a particular ranking metric can influence business schools’ strategies, operations and communication efforts.”

Rankings have an opportunity to drive positive change to the curriculum. A 2019 report from Aviva Investors, Cambridge University and United Nations Global Compact highlighted the importance of sustainability.

“The systems of evaluation might be used to encourage even better business education and to help equip business leaders with the skills needed to run a productive, inclusive and sustainable economy for the 21st century,” the study said.

One of the main issues with business school rankings is that they offer only a small snapshot of a much larger picture. “Many students have jobs working for social good, which do not always have high salaries but are rewarding in other ways. The geographic location and cost of living can distort salary reports as well,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, president and CEO of AACSB International, the accreditation agency.

“Too narrowly defined methodologies don’t allow for the intricacies of each program to truly shine, and thus can’t give an accurate representation of what the program can do for the learners.”

How the coronavirus pandemic may affect MBA rankings

AACSB and EFMD, along with the Graduate Management Admission Council, have asked for rankings to be postponed this year because of the coronavirus disruption to business schools and employment outcomes.

“As schools and learners continue to respond to the pandemic, we believe rankings should remain on hold,” says Beck-Dudley. “Business schools need an opportunity to regain their footing in this unprecedented time, without the extra pressure or concern of the unknown impacts of the metrics used in the rankings.”

Several schools have declined to cooperate with some rankings this year, potentially leading to fluctuations and discrepancies in the rankings coming up.

Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman says the pull-outs show the commitment of schools to their students. “Schools need to focus on the quality of their program and student needs and safety. They shouldn’t be distracted by secondary priorities such as rankings.”

She does not encourage her clients to focus too heavily on rankings when they’re making their MBA program selections. “Applicants would do well to focus more on a program’s culture, size, or the strength of its alumni network.”

Blackman continues: “If you’re a prospective MBA, you should decide the factors that will play a role in where you apply. Consider cost, location, program specialties, faculty’s areas of expertise.”

It’s important to look at the data points that are important to your own career path when determining the value of a particular ranking, she says. “However, know that if you aspire to a highly competitive position in banking or consulting, a potential employer will likely give an advantage to an applicant from one of the elite schools. That’s the reality of the game.”

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