Wharton Again Tops U.S. News’ Ranking

Wharton

Wharton

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School again topped U.S. News & World Report‘s ranking of the best undergraduate business programs in the U.S. In fact, the top six business schools all maintained their rankings from last year. MIT Sloan and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business both came in tied for second place. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business held onto its fourth spot, while New York University’s Stern School and the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce retained fifth and sixth place, respectively.

Despite the stability at the top, the new 2016 (the magazine puts a year earlier date on its rankings so they don’t appear perishable to parents and would-be students) U.S. News ranking–published today (Sept. 9) has its share of winners and losers. Some 10 schools among the top 113 undergraduate business programs experienced double-digit increases or decreases. This year’s biggest winners include St. Joseph’s University Haub School and Gonzaga, both up 20 places from last year to finish 93rd. The undergraduate business programs at Texas Christian University and Clemson University jumped 18 spots each to rank 61st. Georgia Tech climbed 14 places to rank 15th, while UC-San Diego’s Rady School rose 12 positions to finish 50th.

And the losers? George Mason University’s undergraduate business program suffered the biggest drop of any top 100 program, falling 18 places to finish 80th this year. St. Louis University’s Cook School declined 14 spots to finish 93rd. The University of Kansas and the University of Nebraska both dropped 10 places to rank 61st. The University of Georgia’s Terry School slipped eight positions to finish 29th.

HOW SERIOUSLY SHOULD ANYONE TAKE THIS RANKING? NOT VERY

How seriously should one take this ranking? Not very. First off, the ranking is entirely based on nothing more than the opinions of business school deans and senior faculty who bothered to fill out the survey. They are asked to rate the quality of business programs with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). The highest score, a 4.8, was obtained by Wharton.

U.S. News then combined two years worth of these opinion surveys to produce this year’s ranking. The magazine says that its latest survey, conducted in the spring of 2015, had a response rate of 37%. That’s not bad as response rates go, but the problem is that few deans or senior faculty know what’s going on in their own schools; never mind what is happening at other institutions far away.

The result of that lack of knowledge makes the ranking more a reinforcement of existing brand perception than it is a true measure of the quality of the undergraduate business school experience. After all, there are no measurements in this ranking of incoming student quality, no attempt to evaluate what happens to students once they are in the program, and no data on such easily measured outcomes such as starting salaries and employment. All of those factors are far more important than a survey of unknowledgeable deans and faculty.

SOME 21 SCHOOLS ARE TIED FOR A RANK OF 93RD PLACE

The actual results of the ranking, moreover, lend credence to the popular view that most deans and faculty fill out this survey by taking out U.S. News’ previous ranking and just following the earlier consensus. Consider this: Only six of the top 113 schools ranked 93rd or higher have their own specific rank. That’s because the survey results are so close to each other than most programs are tied for a numerical rank. There are 21 schools with undergraduate business programs ranked 93rd, 19 programs tied at a rank of 61, 13 tied at 80, 11 with the rank of 50.

All told, U.S. News ranks 190 undergraduate business programs, assigning a numerical rank to all of them. The highest rank, however, is 156, for which 35 different business schools are tied. In other words, less-than-credible data is being sliced so thin that even U.S. News has to acknowledge there is little difference among most of the programs it is ranking–or at least the magazine’s severely flawed methodology can’t discern major differences.

In fact, the survey results are so thin that schools can go up or down the ranking by as many as 20 places just because a program’s “peer score” increased or decrease by .1 on a 5.0 scale. Gonzaga and St. Joseph’s University both jumped 20 spots this year to a tie of 93rd, even though their peer scores went from 2.8 to 2.9. Those sizable changes lack reason or justification. In all likelihood, big changes in rank occurred because one or two people failed to complete the survey from one year to the next.

Even more puzzling was the fact that 71 of the top 113 schools had a year-over-year rankings change. Yet 52 of those 71 schools had changes in rank even though their peer scores were identical from year to year. But that’s the ranking game. These lists attract tremendous attention, impact application volume and alumni donations, even faculty recruitment. And yet, their value is more for entertainment than for substance.

  • Tim Westerbeck

    John – I always appreciate your candor regarding rankings. Your commentary here is no exception. How can anyone take these rankings seriously — as indicative of, well, anything?Anyone who has spent any time around the business school block knows, as you suggest, that the surveys on which this ranking is build are completed by individuals with almost no material knowledge of the institutions they are ranking. Beyond being of low objective value, these rankings are just boring. Yet — and here is the frustrating part — right now the marketing director at every one of the schools favorably ranked is scrambling to get out its media release, get the ranking on its website and send out an excited letter to alumni, etc. Conversely, the folks who, by virtue of some statistically irrelevant blip that sent them careening down the list are also busily explaining to their stakeholders why these rankings are not reflective of the institution’s quality, re-stating their accomplishments and vision and seeking to calm restive stakeholders. What is at the root of the fear that keeps this non-virtuous cycle spinning? Tim Westerbeck, President, Eduvantis.