Late last week, Optimal, a data-collection and syndication website that claims to help people “make better decisions about careers and education,” released a new ranking of master’s, bachelor’s, and online degrees. To our surprise, Michael Nietzel, the president emeritus of Missouri State University, covered the rankings in Forbes. And since part of that ranking included a “Best 25 Undergraduate Business Schools 2020” portion, we thought we’d weigh in.
At first glance — without researching how the rankings were put together — the results are not horribly absurd. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business tops the list. Michigan Ross finished second in our own ranking of undergraduate B-schools for 2020. Carnegie Mellon University was second in Optimal’s ranking, which was published on GradReports.com. Rounding out the top five were the University of California-Berkeley, Emory University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — all very well-respected undergraduate business institutes.
Then things got funky.
The School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology comes in sixth, edging out … The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Georgetown University followed Wharton for eighth place, which just beat out Golden Gate University. No offense to Golden Gate University, but it doesn’t even have an actual business school. And it also doesn’t have a residential undergraduate business degree. Its bachelor of science in business is offered only online or in a “hybrid” format.
A RANKING BASED SOLELY ON ONE DATAPOINT: MEDIAN SALARIES ONE YEAR AFTER GRADUATION
How can this be? Optimal’s ranking is based solely on the median salaries of graduates one year after graduation, as reported by the schools to the federal government. In a first-of-its-kind data dump last November, the U.S. Department of Education released median salary data as well as a trove of other higher education-related data. But there’s a catch. The data only includes students that received federal financial aid.
And there’s one more catch. The data also only includes reported salaries of students graduating between 2015 and 2016. In this market, that’s wildly out of date.
First, it’s commendable that Optimal parsed through all the data in the College Scorecard database and aggregated it on its own site. But creating a ranking solely out of median salaries is a bit irresponsible. We know first-hand how much schools don’t even like having a salary datapoint in the methodology of the ranking (see the full methodology for our ranking). And we get it: Most of the time, including median salaries as part of a rankings methodology benefits schools that are geographically based in more expensive parts of the country, where graduates go into first jobs with larger salaries (see: Golden Gate University in San Francisco, UC-Berkeley directly across the Bay from San Francisco, or Stevens Institute of Technology directly across the Hudson River from Greenwich Village). Or it benefits schools that place a high percentage of students in consulting and investment banking positions (see Michigan Ross or Wharton).
The other issue that most — if not all — recent business graduates and B-school administrators and faculty will tell you is there is so much more to a business degree and college education than how much money someone makes in their first job after graduation. A college degree is about growth, new experiences, connections, and personal and societal betterment. While we agree the market value placed on recent graduates of a school is important, it’s hardly the most important aspect of a college degree.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE SINGLE DATA-POINT
The other major grain of salt that should be considered when looking at a ranking like this: the sample size. For example, the College Scorecard published by the U.S. Department of Education says 490 students graduated from Michigan Ross and the median salary was $76,900. But the total number of students that received financial aid is not listed. That $76,900 figure could be from 470 of the 490 Michigan Ross graduates that year. Or it could be from 90 of the 490 graduates.
According to data we gathered directly from undergraduate business schools this year, just five schools would’ve ranked higher than the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business median salary of $76,900. We do ask for average salary data instead of median, but even so, the accuracy is likely increased from the sample size. For example, 79% of 2019 Michigan Ross graduates reported an average salary of $75,575 in their first jobs after graduation. In 2018, 71% reported $72,268 for an average salary of jobs accepted within three months of graduation. At Emory’s Goizueta School of Business, 95% of the Class of 2019 reported earning $69,036 and in 2018, 97% reported earning $66,297 — both not that close to the $72,600 median salary the Optimal ranking is reporting graduates from 2015-2016 earned.
Finally, Optimal’s “ranking” is vastly under-represented. Graduates from 2019 at New York University’s Stern School of Business earned $79,186 in starting salary, but Stern is nowhere to be found on Optimal’s GradReports ranking. Class of 2019 graduates from Washington University’s Olin Business School reported earning $76,748, but again WashU is not on the list. Same goes for Cornell University, where business graduates earned $76,975, and the University of Notre Dame where Mendoza College of Business, where graduates earned $70,000 in 2019. But you can find Belmont, California-based Notre Dame de Namur University, coming in 18th place with a reported median salary of $59,200.
To be sure, no ranking is perfect. And no college decision should be made on a ranking or group of rankings. But to rank schools based solely on one datapoint — especially one that has many limitations and doesn’t necessarily measure the value of the degree — is misleading at best.
To see the entirety of the ranking, go here.