Caveat Emptor

Business Week’s  2014 ranking of MBA programs makes the magazine surveyors a laughing stock. It takes little analysis to poke holes in it wide enough to drive a Hummer through them with yards to spare:

Business Week ranks Fuqua the No. 1 MBA program in the US world,  while the venerable HBS drops to 8th place. It does not seem to matter that Fuqua’s selectivity, an indicator of how difficult it is to get in, is 25%, while Harvard’s is 12%, or that Fuqua’s yield (the percentage of students accepted who actually go to a school) is 52%, while Harvard’s is 89%.

It gets worse. I have long said that people pursue MBA studies for one overriding reason: JOBS. If they are company-sponsored, it is to accelerate their career track in the company sponsoring their MBA; if they are paying for their MBA education on their own, the vast majority of applicants worldwide, it is to make a career transition to a different industry; if it is to teach in business school, the MBA (or DBA) is the necessary prerequisite to qualify for that role. Tuck ranked a mere 15th in the 2014 Business Week ranking. Its has a slightly better record than Fuqua in job offers extended to graduating students and has a program cost nearly half that of Fuqua’s $114,109.

Business Week ranks The University of California, Berkeley (Haas) 19th, below Indiana, the University of Maryland, and Emory.
All of these ranking surveys have inherent biases, as I described in Best Guide to MBA Programs. In that guide I provided an exhaustive analysis of the selection factors to consider in deciding on what MBA programs to apply:

MBA School Selection Factors

Brand Name
Career placement success
Strength of alumni network

Learning Environment
Quality of the students
Curriculum & Functional strength
Teaching quality
Class Size

Living Environment
City Size

Tuition & Living Expenses

If you ask me what factors are the most important to consider in addition to overall ranking, I would cite these three:
•    Brand name
•    Quality of the students
•    Curriculum and functional strength

Brand Name
You can’t ignore the brand name, because it will contribute to job leads and eventually job offers, and because the brand is enhanced by the strength and activeness of the alum who represent it, and those alum will help you in your career.

Quality of the Students
You’ll notice that when good students attend an MBA school, the schools is generally strong in most if not all of the selection factors. Top schools do an excellent job of selecting top students. In visiting a campus, you can almost sense the student atmosphere in a school by attending class, and spending a little time in the student lounge. Don’t miss the opportunity. Schools strongly encourage students to make campus visits for the purpose of assessing a program. They are just as anxious as you are to impress you with the features of their program.

The people you will be studying with are a critical factor in how you much you benefit from your MBA experience. You’ll learn as much from them sharing experiences and perspectives as you will from the textbooks you’ll use or the professors who teach you. You’ll teach them what you know. They’ll complement your strengths and be your principal support group in school. Your learning team represents an essential core, and as you go through the program, you will extend your relationships within your cohort group and within your class. Students will work with you on projects and feed you information about jobs. They are the foundation of your network.

Moreover, your classmates will become part of your alumni group. You’ll keep in touch with your closest MBA friends for the rest of your life, just as you remain in contact with your university classmates, and you will have access to all of them through your school’s alumni association. In developing your portfolio of MBA program targets, consider the quality of your fellow students carefully. Develop email or direct personal relationships with current students or alumni of the schools that generally appeal to you. Many schools make available a list of students that you contact. Use your network of existing MBA holders to build a network. Talk to MBA students during campus visits, asking yourself whether the students you meet are the people you would want as classmates.

What do you want to study, and does an MBA program offer strength in that field? How strongly are you attracted to the learning environment? If you want to study entrepreneurship, the California schools are excellent. New businesses are created in California daily. The area is abuzz with entrepreneurial spirit. Other schools also offer strong programs in entrepreneurship, and in finance, marketing, or other fields.

Look beyond the overall rankings to see what a particular MBA program offers in its curriculum that will develop your skills and meet your needs, maximizing your appeal to a company recruiter. Leading MBA schools “practice what they preach,” striving to make continuous improvement so that they maintain their competitive advantage and prosper. Don’t judge an MBA program by some stereotypical image in your head of what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Check out its strengths today. MBA schools have made tremendous changes in their curricula over the years.

Top MBA schools are like Grand Cru Bordeaux wines. Each has its unique character and strength. Never make the mistake of following blindly a ranking survey like Business Week. Do your own analysis of what you need from the MBA schools you apply and what they offer to meet those needs. Visit them and see with your own eyes. Talk to the students, talk to the school’s alumni. Network to your advantage.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier
Interface Inc

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