Should You Trust the US 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 2021 edition of the Best Business Schools ranking by US 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.

How US News Creates Their MBA Ranking

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

  • Peer assessment – 25%
  • Recruiter assessment – 15%
  • School data – 60%

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 (7%) and three months after (14%) – 21%
  • Mean GMAT and GRE scores – 16.25%
  • Mean starting salary and bonus – 14%
  • Mean undergraduate GPA – 7.5%
  • Acceptance rate – 1.25%

General Observations

US 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 US News ranking quite well—which is exactly where the main problem lies.

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 83rd by US News, has any knowledge, let alone interest, in #1 Stanford’s activity? The same is true in reverse: Stanford 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.

US News MBA Ranking, 2021
1.Stanford
1.Wharton
3.Kellogg
3.Booth
5.MIT Sloan
6.Harvard
7.Haas Berkeley
8.Columbia
9.Yale
10.NYU Stern
11.Darden
12.Tuck
12.Fuqua
12.Ross
15.Cornell – Johnson
16.UCLA
17.Marshall
18.McCombs
19.Tepper
20.UNC Kenan-Flagler
20.Foster
22.Goizueta
23.Kelley
23.Owen
25.McDonough
25. Jones

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.

Recruiter Assessments

The recruiter assessment is also 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 US 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 the lowest in the top 25 schools, and the peer assessment score is second to last. However, with employment rates of 86.2% and 98.9% at graduation and three months after graduation, Foster ranks 20th overall. Foster even tops the employment-at-three-months list, well before Darden (96.3%) and Ross (96%).

Foster’s low recruiter and peer assessment scores downgrade its overall score, which might discourage applicants from applying. This reveals a very real shortcoming of the US News ranking: someone interested in tech job would miss out on an excellent program simply because the US 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.

Employment rates

By feeding employment rates directly into their ranking, US News fails again to consider the broader context of certain data points.  

Consider the case of Harvard and Stanford. Stanford, which tops the overall ranking, has the lowest employment rate at graduation (67.5%). Harvard has equally dismal employment rates, given its stature.

This doesn’t make any sense: how can two of the most prestigious business schools in the world have such low employment rates, both at graduation and three months after?

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 US 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. 

US News vs. Forbes

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 US 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:

US News rankingForbes ranking
Wharton2nd5th
Booth4th1st
Haas Berkeley7th11th
NYU Stern10th20th
Tuck12th6th
Cornell – Johnson15th9th

The largest difference can be seen in the ranking of NYU Stern; 10th vs. 20th. This difference is very interesting, especially since Stern had the second highest average starting compensation in the US 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 US 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 cracks the top 10 in the US 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 US 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, US 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.

US News vs. Businessweek

Reading through another US-focused ranking, that of Businessweek, the same question arises: how can the US 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:

US News rankingBusinessweek ranking
Wharton2nd6th
Kellogg3rd10th
Yale9th14th
Darden11th5th
Tuck12th2nd
Fuqua13th20th

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 US News ranking quite well. But as the other sub-rankings begin to diverge, the overall ranking from Businessweek becomes less-and-less aligned with US News

For example, Wharton ranks 70th and 31st on Learning and Entrepreneurship respectively, which explains why their ranking is only 6th according to Businessweek and yet tied for first on the US News list. 

That Tuck scores 5th on Compensation and Learning, while topping the charts on Networking, explains why they come in (surprisingly) at second place in the Businessweek MBA ranking.

US News MBA Rankings: Key Takeaways

Like it or not, the US 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 judgements 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 US News mischaracterizes key data points and fails to live up to standards of objectivity. So approach the list with caution, and take the US 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.