The more things change, the more they stay the same.
U.S. News & World Report today (Sept. 13) came out with its new undergraduate business program ranking and the top five schools stayed exactly where they were finished a year ago: The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School topped the list, followed by a tie for second place shared between MIT Sloan and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business came in fourth, while New York University’s Stern School placed fifth again.
Some 13 schools can now claim they are in the Top 10 undergraduate business programs, thanks to the fact that the underlying scores for the ranking are so close together that five schools tied for ninth place: Cornell University’s Dyson School, Indiana’s Kelley School, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Notre Dame’s Mendoza School, and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School. Three other schools were locked into a sixth place tie: Carnegie Mellon, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce.
U.S. News‘ annual list of business programs, a subset of its overall undergraduate rankings, 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 this year, a 4.8, was obtained by Wharton. It was exactly the same peer grade Wharton received last year. U.S. News does not disclose the actual peer assessment scores on its website but rather in its guidebook available on the newsstands.
HOW U.S. NEWS RANKS THE PROGRAMS
U.S. News then combined the last 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 2016, had a response rate of 38%. That’s not bad as response rates go (and it’s a percentage above last year’s), 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.
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. Some 24 of the Top 25 undergraduate programs from last year are on this year’s list, with 19 of them in either the same rank or just one place off from last year. The biggest change? Purdue University’s Krannert School, which hadn’t made the list at all last year, popped into a three-way tie for 23rd place with Michigan State and Penn State.
TINY CHANGES CAN HAVE BIG IMPACT
The biggest losers in the Top 25 are Georgia’s Institute of Technology, which plunged 17 places to a rank of 32 from 15 last year, and Boston College, which lost five spots to 27th from 22 last year. Both those schools lost Top 25 status. Wisconsin’s Business School, which dropped four places to a rank of 19, managed to stay in the top group. The University of Arizona’s Eller School and the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business showed the most significant gains among the Top 25, both rising three places to finish 19h.
As is typical in rankings, tiny changes in the underlying peer assessment scores can loom very large, having an exaggerated effect on a program’s actual numerical ranking. This year, for example, just a minor .1 change in the peer assessment score to 3.2 from 3.1 sent five schools–Temple. U.S. Air Force Academy, Miami, Nebraska and Oklahoma–soaring 13 places in their ranks to 48th from 61st last year. A similar change, to 3.0 from 2.9, fueled a 16-place rise for five schools to a rank of 77th from 93rd last year.
Just how unable the methodology is to differentiate the programs can be seen by the number of tied schools for different positions. Some 16 different schools, from American University’s Kogod School to the University of Richmond’s Robins School, are all tied for a rank of 77th. Though U.S. News put numerical ranks on 229 undergraduate business programs, the lowest rank any school gets is 184th–because 35 schools are tied for 184th place.
U.S. News also parses its data to identify the top five programs in several disciplines (see tables below). Michigan’s Ross School took first in both the marketing and management categories, while Wharton claimed first in finance and the University of Texas’ McCombs School taking the top spot in accounting. Babson College once again claimed first in entrepreneurship.