The Rady School of Management at UC San Diego. Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource

For three decades, students, educators and employers have debated the relative merits of the MBA program rankings conducted annually by U.S. News & World Report as well as other publications and institutions.

As not all endowments are created equal, the rankings are not a level playing field. Those affiliated with highly ranked schools tend to value these third-party assessments, while those associated with lower-ranked institutions are more likely to question their relevance.

With COVID-19 reshaping higher education and the economy in ways that were previously unimaginable, the debate surrounding MBA program rankings is raging anew. The presidents of the Graduate Management Admission Council, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the European Foundation for Management Development joined forces in April to co-author a letter calling a the pause of the rankings. On May 7, Bloomberg Businessweek followed through by suspending its MBA rankings for this year, citing the academic associations’ letter and the requests it received from “many schools” to take that step.

Many stakeholders in the business school community have already critiqued the rankings for years, arguing that they tell an incomplete story about the value of a business degree in general and the reputation of individual MBA programs. In light of COVID-19, the rankings are based on metrics that can no longer be considered comprehensive and reliable indicators of success, such as standardized test scores, employment rates and starting salaries of recent graduates. Many schools are now dropping standardized test score requirements; many graduates are now at risk of entering a job market with fewer opportunities and lower salaries.

The rankings also fail to account for whether graduate-level business programs are preparing students to be the innovative problem-solvers society urgently needs during a pandemic. Today’s high school and college students are among the most passionate the U.S. has ever seen when it comes to addressing challenges related to social justice, the environment, civic engagement and now public health. Test scores and salaries are certainly part of the picture, but for many members of the younger generation, they can be secondary concerns.

When business school leaders make admissions decisions, they are forced to weigh the impact of those choices on the rankings. That could contribute to not admitting an entrepreneurial-minded candidate with a low standardized test score or GPA, or a candidate seeking to work in the non-profit sector (with its lower average salaries) over the for-profit world. These considerations make it exceedingly difficult for business programs to be bold and innovative in building their incoming classes.

The MBA programs that fail to recruit and nurture innovative, entrepreneurial, socially minded students may not survive this era. Even as many well-funded public institutions or larger private universities possessing the safety net of an endowment do not face existential crises as a direct result of coronavirus, business programs at smaller private schools are likely to experience steep financial challenges.

Business schools cannot afford to return to a pre-pandemic state of affairs once the current crisis subsides. Tomorrow’s MBA students will demand a more socially responsible education that focuses on topics like public health, climate change, globalization and economic inequities. Business programs, in turn, must respond by providing their students with more meaningful and holistic approaches to problem-solving and leadership.

Instead of focusing on measurements such as test scores and salaries, they should be measuring and emphasizing the impact their graduates can have on society as a whole. The rankings, however, reinforce an antiquated business school model. They have long defined the relevance and success of business education, but they no longer serve that purpose.

As additional publications and organizations mull the possibility of suspending their rankings, a one-year pause would likely have a limited impact on the business school landscape. Should rankings return with the same methodology, schools will again face undue influence over their decision-making and will be distracted from focusing on mission-critical priorities.

Instead, those who publish rankings now have an opportunity to change the way they evaluate business schools in the long run. A new methodology can address the rankings’ past limitations, while more accurately reflecting the role of business education in the post-pandemic future.

Shaun Carver is former assistant dean for graduate programs at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, and a member of Liaison International’s BusinessCAS advisory board. Robert Ruiz is managing director of BusinessCAS.

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