Should You Trust the U.S. News MBA Rankings?

Choosing the right MBA program is one of the most important decisions in your professional career. Before you start using rankings to make this decision, shouldn’t you learn a little bit about how they work?

Rankings are ultimately designed by publications to create controversy and therefore increase readership. If they admitted that the quality of schools doesn’t often change radically from year to year, no one would need to read the article.

These are key points to consider when consulting the 2023-2024 edition of the Best Business Schools ranking by U.S. News. This ranking is often seen as the most accurate and prestigious, and yet it fails, like other MBA rankings, to grade business schools fairly and to keep them in their proper context.

(If you want a stable list of the leaders in MBA education that is not designed to artificially change the rankings each year to draw readers, see our directory of top MBA programs, which doesn’t focus on a ranking formula, but on the curriculum, class profile, employment report and culture of each MBA program.)

How U.S. News Creates Their MBA Ranking

For the U.S. News ranking, business schools were evaluated using several different metrics, divided into three categories:

  • Peer assessment – 12.5%
  • Recruiter assessment – 12.5%
  • School data – 75%

In the peer assessment, business school deans and directors were asked to rank peer institutions. Corporate recruiters and company contacts supplied by the schools were surveyed for the recruiter assessment section of the ranking.

The school data is further divided into the following sections:

  • Employment rates for full-time MBA program graduates at graduation (10%) and three months after (20%) – 30%
  • Mean GMAT and GRE scores – 13%
  • Mean starting salary and bonus – 20%
  • Mean undergraduate GPA – 10%
  • Acceptance rate – 2%
Categories2022-2023 Rankings Methodology2023-2024 Rankings Methodology
Peer Assessment25%12.5%
Recruiter Assessment25%12.5%
School Data (Total)50% 75%
Employment Rate7%—at graduation
14%—3 months after graduation
10%—at graduation
20%—3 months after graduation
Mean GMAT and GRE Scores16.25%13%
Mean Starting Salary and Bonus14%20%
Mean Undergraduate GPA7.5%10%
Acceptance Rate1.25%2%

General Observations

U.S. News attaches great weight to the opinion of the deans and directors of some 131 business schools, along with professional recruiters. Because of this, the ranking by peer institutions and recruiters closely corresponds to the final U.S. News ranking quite well—which is exactly where the main problem lies.

In the past, we’ve been vocal in our criticism of the weight U.S. News places on the less objective metrics in their ranking methodology—namely the “peer assessment” and “recruiter assessment” portions of their ranking methodology. However, it seems the publication has taken our feedback to heart and adjusted their metrics in 2023. 

While these changes are encouraging, U.S. News has compensated for their changes without examining the logical flaws in the school data incorporated in their MBA program evaluation metrics.

As always, we advise that MBA applicants consider the broader context surrounding MBA rankings and take a balanced approach to the emphasis they place on them.

Peer Institution Assessments

It might seem like a fair approach: allow all 131 schools under consideration to grade each other, giving every program equal input for the ranking.

And for each of the various program groupings–the top 3 schools, schools 4th through 10th, 10th through 20th, and so on–the rankings will be relatively accurate, as schools that compete with one another will know where their rivals excel and where they fall short. But do you really think that Clemson University, ranked 98th by U.S. News, has any knowledge, let alone interest, in #1 Booth’s activity? The same is true in reverse: Booth has no real insight into Clemson. The fact is, the two schools have a completely different target group of applicants, and asking the two schools to grade one another just makes no sense.

U.S. News MBA Ranking, 2023-2024
4.MIT Sloan
22.UNC Kenan Flagler
26. Scheller

And take it a step further: think about the schools that are competing, especially for the top positions. Schools like Stanford and Wharton have a vested interest in downgrading Harvard: they won’t give Harvard a terrible score, but they will go as low as they think they can get away with. And why wouldn’t they? These schools are ranked against each other, so to climb in the ranking, you have to push someone else down.

However, in the 2023-2024 rankings, U.S. News halved the influence of peer assessment over a school’s final ranking (25%-12.5%). This is a welcome change in this year’s ranking methodology, as reducing the weight of the peer assessment allows schools to be evaluated based on less subjective criteria which can’t be manipulated as easily.

Recruiter Assessments

The recruiter assessment has also been, historically, problematic, especially as some recruiters will know a lot about a school they’ve drawn from in the past, but not about schools they’ve never worked with. Indeed, no one could possibly know enough about every school to give each a proper, informed ranking.

It is also worth pointing out that because the names of the recruiters surveyed by U.S. News were supplied by the schools, the objectivity of the review is compromised. An MBA program could supply the name of an employer where they have placed a smaller number of people very successfully and leave out a company where they have placed many people with mixed results. This way the schools can skew the results in their favor. 

Questions of objectivity or manipulation aside, we also must consider that, for some schools, a very high, meaningful reputation with regional recruiters might be overshadowed by a weaker national reputation. This is especially apparent in the case of University of Washington-Michael G. Foster School of Business. 

Foster’s recruiter assessment score is considerably lower than the traditionally high-ranking schools on the list, such as Harvard and Stanford. However, with employment rates of 91.2% and 99% at graduation and three months after graduation, Foster ranks 20th overall. Foster even beats out the #1 school, Booth, on employment-at-three-months (95.6%), as well as UCLA Anderson (91.9%) and Stanford (83.8%).

Foster’s low recruiter assessment and peer assessment scores (3.6/5 and 3.7/5, respectively) downgrade its overall score, which might discourage applicants from applying. This reveals a very real shortcoming of the U.S. News ranking: someone interested in a tech job would miss out on an excellent program simply because the U.S. News methodology privileges high peer assessment, and more specifically, high national peer assessment. And yet, Foster places most of its graduates in the Pacific Northwest, and more specifically, the Seattle area. For this reason, business schools and recruiters that are not from the area will rate Foster poorly, while those in-the-know realize that if an applicant’s goal is to land a job at Microsoft or Amazon, an MBA from Foster would be an excellent choice.

This year, U.S. News has reduced the weight of the recruiter assessment (15%-12.5%), mitigating the sway that this flawed metric has over a school’s overall ranking. Although this change is encouraging, this minor reduction in percentage does not address the logical flaws in how U.S. News measures a school’s status among recruiters.

Gauging a school’s reputation with employers accurately would require more data, such as which companies chose to hire a given MBA program’s graduates.  Programs that place into the most desirable employers — such as Google, Goldman Sachs or McKinsey — prove that they have a great reputation with employers.  At Menlo Coaching, we advise our clients based on a proprietary data set showing which companies hired each MBA program’s graduates

David White, Menlo Coaching

Employment rates

By feeding employment rates directly into their ranking, U.S. News fails again to consider the broader context of certain data points. Worse still, this year U.S. News increased the value of employment rates at graduation (7%-10%) and after graduation (21-30%).  

Consider the case of Harvard and Stanford. Stanford, famously one of the most prestigious universities and business schools in the world, has a particularly low employment rate at graduation (61.2%). Harvard has equally dismal employment rates, given its stature, at 79%.

This doesn’t make any sense: how can two of the best renowned business schools in the world have such low employment rates, both at graduation and three months after (83.8% and 89.5% respectively)?

It’s because graduates from Harvard and Stanford, unlike graduates from other schools, are unemployed because they choose to be, not because they can’t find a job. Most Harvard and Stanford alumni could get a job. Because of this, they wait for the perfect offer. Therefore, the low employment rates do not reflect weakness, but come instead from a point of strength. Harvard and Stanford students have so many opportunities, that they can afford to wait for the perfect opportunity for them.

This is not reflected in the U.S. News ranking, and it is only because these programs do so well in the other categories that they are able to maintain their high positions. 

U.S. News vs. Forbes

U.S. News vs Forbes, 2019 RankingsU.S. News rankingForbes ranking
Berkeley Haas8th11th
NYU Stern12th20th
Cornell Johnson 15th9th

When consulting rankings, the potential MBA applicant may be struck by the dramatic differences between each list. How can a school rise and fall so markedly across rankings that are presumably measuring the same thing?

By analyzing specific entries from different rankings, we see how these lists do not measure the same thing at all: wildly inconsistent methodologies lead to wildly inconsistent results. We also begin to see how, for each ranking, the arbitrary decision to highlight one aspect of the MBA experience will favor certain programs and penalize others.

As a US-focused publication, the Forbes MBA rankings are often consulted alongside those of U.S. News. The methodology used by Forbes can be found on our Forbes MBA ranking page. In summary, Forbes only takes into account how much is gained (financially) by attending an MBA. 

Some of the most noticeable discrepancies are selected in the following table:

The largest difference can be seen in the ranking of NYU Stern; 12th vs. 20th. This difference is very interesting, especially since Stern had such a high starting salary at $181,803 on the U.S. News list. Intuitively, this would mean that Stern should also rank high on the Forbes list. However, Forbes also takes tuition into account, which is relatively high for NYU Stern. Lastly, Forbes bases their ranking on the total gain over five years post-MBA, whereas U.S. News only takes into account the starting salary. Because of this, Stern is ranked relatively low by Forbes, whereas the high compensation and employment percentages mean NYU Stern barely misses the top 10 in the U.S. News Best Business Schools ranking.

Apart from the specific differences between the rankings of the individual schools, there is also a conceptual difference between these two rankings. The U.S. News ranking tries to rank the total experiential value of the MBA, where the Forbes ranking is focused on the final, financial outcome. In theory, U.S. News could rank a school that adds no financial value for its graduates higher than a school that does add value. On the Forbes ranking, however, a school that adds no financial value would rank incredibly poorly.

U.S. News vs. Businessweek

Reading through another US-focused ranking, that of Businessweek, the same question arises: how can the U.S. News and Businessweek rankings vary so widely? The full breakdown of Businessweek’s methodology can be found on the Businessweek MBA ranking page. In summary, Businessweek asked students and recruiters to grade business schools on four weighted categories, including Compensation, Networking, Learning, and Entrepreneurship.

The most noticeable differences between the two are presented in the following table:

2022-2023 U.S. News vs Business Week RankingsU.S. News rankingBusinessweek ranking

These differences can largely be explained by looking at the sub-rankings that Businessweek creates in its approach. The Compensation ranking, for example, matches the U.S. News ranking quite well. But as the other sub-rankings begin to diverge, the overall ranking from Businessweek becomes less-and-less aligned with U.S. News

For example, Wharton ranks 78th and 34th on Learning and Entrepreneurship respectively, which explains why their ranking is only 6th according to Businessweek and yet tied for first on the U.S. News list. 

U.S. News MBA Rankings: Key Takeaways

Like it or not, the U.S. News ranking is the most prestigious and relied-upon list of “top” US business schools. This fact, combined with the flawed methodology described in great detail above, makes it a particularly troublesome list. The ranking will continue to generate new headlines every year, and many judgments about the quality of MBA programs–whether deserved or not–will be formed as a result. But at least you, the informed reader, now understand how U.S. News mischaracterizes key data points and fails to live up to standards of objectivity. So approach the list with caution, and take the U.S. News ranking with a grain of salt.

So How Can You Find the Best MBA Program (Without Rankings)?

Once you determine roughly which schools you are qualified to attend–and the rankings can definitely factor into this initial list–we encourage you to leave the rankings behind and instead focus on the practical questions that will help you figure out which MBA program will provide value to your career. These are simple, practical questions:

Answering these questions will help you find an MBA program that can enhance your career.