23 Jun 2015 19:06 IST

School rankings matter less than you imagine, so think different

Return on Investment (ROI) and outcome-based approaches to school selection are better than blindly selecting schools using arbitrary school rankings

In today's numbers driven world, ranking anything is big business. Cars, hospitals, home builders and even consumer products are ranked by various media outlets and customer satisfaction companies. Consumers crave for rankings because it makes it easy for them to sift out good products and services from bad, without having to do a lot of research themselves. And so, companies covet these rankings and influence those who rank to show them in good light.

College rankings, in particular, are getting a lot of media attention these days. In India, there are at least five different organisations that publish business school rankings. Many more publish lists for engineering, medicine and law colleges. In the US, the proverbial mecca of higher education, prospective students can consult at least ten different rankings lists, the most popular being the one from the US News and World Report. And to add to the menu, there are global lists from organisations such as the UK-based Financial Times and QS, or the French-based Eduniversal.

Before we go any further, note that school ranking is not the same as reputation. We do not need any publication to tell us that the IIMs are elite business schools. We already know this fact. A recent Financial Times story reported that more Harvard Business School alumni now occupy the corner office than MBAs from all of the non-US business schools combined, 28 CEOs to 19. This kind of reputation is earned over decades (and in the case of the Ivy Leagues, centuries) of hard work and accomplishment. In a sense, reputed schools are famous - for being famous.

Complex interaction

Rankings, however, ebb or flow with the tide and are dependent upon the ranking outfit’s methodology. It is not easy to take an institution with millions of complex interactions involving its management, faculty, students, parents, employers and trustees for nearly a year — and reduce them all to a number based on a set of so-called “objective” criteria. But the ranking outfit claims to achieve this nearly impossible task because it has an edge in its proprietary methodology.

As you learn more about it, you may not agree with the methodology used to begin with. In fact, the ranking organisation may itself be conflicted about its approach. The University of Chicago reported a couple of years ago that “ranking methods change from year to year, causing an institution’s ranking to rise or fall with little change in the underlying data”. US News decided to change its ranking methodology, in 2013 and again in 2014. Under a revised formula that puts less emphasis on who gets admitted and more on whether students graduate, lesser known schools moved up in the rankings.

And then there’s the question of how valid the underlying data is. Most ranking outfits rely on the schools to provide them with sensitive data — such as admissions figures, graduation rates and placement statistics — because a transparent, central hub of information does not exist. This creates an inherent conflict of interest. If a school is truthful in its reporting to an external organisation, it could potentially end up being ranked lower. There is every incentive for the school to therefore manipulate the data provided, if not outright cheat.

Takeaway

Setting aside all these issues, a major problem with rankings is that students are placed in the uncomfortable, counter-intuitive position of choosing a ranking system before choosing a school. Each organisation uses its own method to rank, so the obvious question is which school ranking system is best for you? If the school you like is ranked high in a few lists but ranked lower in the others, what should you do?

Finally, a key reservation about commercial school rankings is exactly that — that is, these rankings are produced by commercial, for-profit companies. The ultimate goal of these outfits is to sell their rankings or build a brand around them. In 2007, the US News site was regularly getting about half-a-million hits a month. Within three days of the rankings release, traffic went up to 10 million page views, a twenty-fold increase. In 2010, the company expressed its plans to walk away from magazine publishing altogether focusing instead on its rankings business.

The takeaway here is simple. Selecting a graduate school is probably one of the most important decisions one makes in a career. Students are better off to use rankings sparingly and more as a final filter, if at all, rather than as a crucial pivot throughout the process.

For example, one needs to look at how high the expected jump in post-MBA compensation would likely be. If the jump isn’t too high — because pre-MBA salaries are already high or the quality of the MBA education isn’t strong enough for one to demand huge increases — the time to recover your investment can be long. This is a warning to drop a potential school from consideration.

Also research market conditions to first select states with sound economies so that you can either find promising careers or consider entrepreneurship opportunities after you graduate. Select a school in those states so that it is easy for you to network with business leaders after classes. Have a clear idea about the industries and professions in demand so that you can potentially re-brand your profile, if needed, by taking classes or completing projects in hot areas such as green energy, e-commerce, logistics or big data.

Such Return on Investment (ROI) and outcome-based approaches to school and field selection give you a much better chance to fast-track your career than blindly selecting schools using arbitrary school rankings.

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