On March 11, former Temple University Fox School of Business dean Moshe Porat was sentenced to 14 months in prison and a $250,000 fine for manipulating his program’s MBA ranking.
The effects of Porat’s deception were significant: by providing fraudulent student data to US News, Porat helped Fox’s Online MBA Program climb to the top of the rankings from 2015 to 2018.
As far as I know, the scandal around the Fox School of Business rankings is a unique incident in which the ranking numbers were falsified outright.
But the irony of the situation is that Porat staked his life and the reputation of his program on a system that is fundamentally flawed to begin with: that is, even when the numbers are honest, rankings are based on irrelevant or even misleading factors.
Why you can't trust MBA rankings
For example, 25% of the US News MBA ranking is based on surveys sent to every one of the 486 AACSB-accredited US business schools. Does this make sense? Does the Dean of the business school at Clemson University (#74 in the 2021 US News ranking) really have a well-informed opinion about how to rank HBS vs. Stanford GSB vs. Wharton?
Once you begin to dive into the details, there are countless examples of the ways in which MBA rankings fail to make meaningful comparisons between programs.
Of course, for the ranking bodies themselves, these arguments don’t matter. The primary motivation of MBA rankings—and those who publish them—is simply to generate traffic and ad revenue, not to provide MBA applicants with all of the information they will need to make an informed decision about their ideal MBA program.
Nonetheless, MBA programs have come to rely on the reputation-boost that comes with a high ranking, and as the Porat case demonstrates, admissions departments pay close attention to their position in the ranking.
How business schools manipulate MBA rankings
It is even fair to say that MBA programs have been in the business of manipulating rankings from the beginning—not through outright fraud, but by skillfully engineering their incoming class in a way that maximizes their program’s standing.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on raising their average GMAT score and average GPA. Every application pool will feature students with admirable stats, but weaker professional experience than their lower-scoring peers.
If an MBA program wants to boost their rankings, they can admit a few more students like these and expect that students with both great scores and great experience will follow in future years, after the program’s ranking improves.
Even top-ranked schools have besmirched their reputations by manipulating MBA rankings. Stanford GSB famously awarded sizable financial aid packages to students with extremely high pre-MBA earnings, despite their policy that financial aid will be provided on a strictly need-based premise.
Stanford most likely wanted to show the highest post-MBA earnings of any school, giving themselves a leg up over Harvard with high-earning private equity professionals.
The absurdity of MBA rankings-obsession
MBA rankings are useful for candidates insofar as they can very quickly point to the MBA programs and business schools that are most desirable for applicants and their future employers.
These rankings also tend to correlate with the school’s selectivity, so applicants can infer that top-ranked schools are unlikely to admit students with low GPAs, low GMAT scores, and below-average work experience. Serious MBA applicants should use rankings as a starting point from which they can begin their school research, but rankings absolutely shouldn’t be the primary factor in their decision making.
Porat’s decision to jeopardize Fox’s reputation just to appear higher on some arbitrary list was not only disingenuous and dishonorable, it was a thoughtless waste of effort that could have been better invested in organically improving the school’s resources and applicant pool and, consequently, its reputation.
And this is the ultimate absurdity of rankings-obsession: it causes admissions departments all across the MBA landscape to focus their energies on an arbitrary number, created by a third-party, rather than prioritizing the education of their incoming students.
David White (pictured above) is co-founder of MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. All opinions stated in this article are of the author and not of BusinessBecause.
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