How B-Schools Make the Grade

An inside look at BusinessWeek's 2004 rankings from an editor and a reporter who oversee the biennial effort

BusinessWeek's new rankings of full-time MBA programs is packed with all sorts of surprises. On Oct. 7, BusinessWeek Online hosted a live countdown to the 2004 No. 1 programs. Topping the lists are Kellogg School of Management in the U.S. and Queen's University in Ontario for foreign programs.

BusinessWeek's B-Schools department editor Jennifer Merritt and reporter Kate Hazelwood fielded questions from a global audience of more than 3,300 people. Jack Dierdorff and Mica Schneider moderated the discussion. Here's an edited version of the countdown chat:

Q: Jen, what were some of the highlights from this year's ranking of full-time MBA programs?

Merritt:

At many schools, it was clear that academic rigor, plus a mix of a good all-around culture, were key to getting a good score with students and recruiters. Leadership was a big topic, and many schools tried their hand at new programs to tackle leadership. And, of course, ethics.

Q: Were there any changes to BW's methodology in 2004?Merritt: No. We stuck with the same weighting for recruiters, students, and intellectual capital.

Q: Why does the magazine continue to rank U.S. schools separately from non-U.S. schools?

Merritt:

Most non-U.S. programs operate on different timetables, have a slightly different recruiter base, and offer a different flavor. To be fair to the international schools, we rank them only against each other.

Q: When might the magazine start combining U.S. and foreign schools, if ever?

Merritt:

We don't plan to. The programs are different enough...that we want to keep them separate.

Q: What were some of the highlights of the non-U.S. rankings?

Hazelwood:

There were a couple of big surprises, not just in movement but also in terms of who made it. Recruiters really drove the rankings this year, and those schools that recruiters said had the best soft skills scored the highest.

Q: Which U.S. schools made the biggest jump in the 2004 ranking?

Merritt:

The most improved this year in terms of raw ranking number was Purdue, followed by Notre Dame, Georgetown, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon -- and of course newcomer Babson.

Q: What were some of the biggest surprises in BW's new list of top 10 U.S. schools?

Merritt:

There was a much higher demand from students and recruiters for academic rigor, plus a balance of soft skills. Perhaps one of the bigger surprises: The schools known for technical prowess and quant-heavy curriculum really did well with recruiters and fared almost as well with students. Those schools seem to have reached a better balance of hard and soft skills.

Q: Are U.S. B-schools doing a better job in 2004 preparing future business moguls?

Merritt:

Actually, 50% of recruiters say today's grads are better prepared and have stronger skills than they did just three years ago, and students themselves seem to feel better prepared for the challenges they'll face.

Q: How many recruiters responded to the 2004 BW survey?

Merritt:

223.

Q: Earlier this year, Harvard and Wharton decided not to share its graduates' e-mail addresses with BusinessWeek. Why were they still included in the 2004 ratings?Merritt: We were able to survey more than 90% of the class of 2004 at each school, so...they were eligible for ranking.

Q: How might notable schools refusing to submit graduate information affect the future of rankings?

Merritt:

It really didn't have much of an effect this year, so while it makes it a little harder to reach grads, it's not really affecting us that much. You'll note that the schools still fill out the rest of the information for the school survey, etc.

Q: What separates BusinessWeek's rankings from those at other publications?

Merritt:

We rely on consumer information -- we believe customer satisfaction is key to a school's performance. That means we go straight to the customer -- recruiters and students. The BW survey has a general rule of only one survey per company, except in rare cases. And we don't use arbitrary stats like GMAT, salary, grade-point average, etc. And then, we also put all of our data online to let our readers compare programs, and see what's behind the numbers.

Our balanced approach -- going to both customers of the B-schools -- is surely going to give a different, but more well-rounded result.

Q: How do young B-schools fare with recruiters?

Merritt: To be eligible for BW's ratings, a school must have offered an MBA program for at least seven years and also have a wider-than-regional appeal when it comes to attracting applicants. That doesn't mean that recruiters don't also mention lesser-known schools, but [some new schools] are not yet eligible for our ranking.

Q: How did Emory climb the rankings so quickly?

Merritt:

It has been able to be innovative in its curriculum, its leadership training, and in bringing aboard of new faculty. It's both a boost from students and from recruiters that moved the school up. Recruiters really seem to have an appreciation for the leadership skills the grads there have.

Q: How did Barcelona'a ESADE climb the non-U.S. ranking so fast?

Hazelwood:

Recruiters! Recruiters praised ESADE's students in many areas -- leadership and attitude were some of the big ones. And they also gave the highest score on best overall graduates. That's no mean feat for a school that wasn't in the rankings until now. Also helping ESADE were students' scores on the quality of the academics at the school.

Q: Why did Yale fall so drastically?

Merritt:

A lot of recruiters seemed to push the school aside -- or at least not rate it as highly as they have in the past. Students were much less satisfied than they have been in the past. Some felt the school has no real identity.

Q: What do you think contributed to Cornell cracking the top 10 to a No. 7 spot ahead of Columbia and MIT?

Merritt:

Increasingly, Cornell grads have been hired by MBA recruiters [from top companies] -- as well as midsize and small ones. The ranking is finally catching up with what companies are seeing. Additionally, students have always been pretty pleased with the school. Also, it has made a lot of efforts to connect with the world outside Ithaca, and I think that's paying off.

Q: What's at the root of London Business School's fall in the rankings over the last four years?

Hazelwood:

We've seen changes on a couple levels -- over the past few years recruiting scores have slipped at the school, more on the academic side than on the soft-skills side. On top of that, students felt the pinch when recruiters pulled back from on-campus recruiting, as they did elsewhere. The difference is that of all the schools, LBS has made great strides in beefing up career services, adding on consulting projects, and has doubled the staff there with associates who come from the fields in which students most want to work, such as investment banking and venture capital.

Q: What schools did marketing recruiters rank highly besides Kellogg?

Merritt:

Harvard, Wharton, Cornell, Michigan, Duke, Dartmouth, Virginia and Indiana.

Q: Since recruiters ranked Michigan No. 1 in The Wall Street Journal rankings, is it safe to assume that it BW's No. 6 ranking of Michigan is based on poor scores from students?

Merritt:

The Wall Street Journal's methodology and ours are vastly different, therefore, there's no fair comparison. Sorry about that, but what I can say is that in the recruiter poll, the school was ranked No. 4. Remember, we limit companies to one survey per, not the hundreds a company can get to answer for The Wall Street Journal. As for students, the overall student poll placed Michigan No. 9, up from 13 last time around.

Q: This student in Rotterdam School of Management asks, "Can you tell me why RSM slipped out of the Top 10 [in the] non-U.S. ranking?"

Hazelwood:

Unfortunately I can answer that too easily. Recruiter scores were down significantly, and that dragged students' satisfaction down. Students couldn't understand why the school didn't have more relationships with large multinationals -- that's why they judged their career-services office so poorly. In addition, students have detected a noticeable chill in the hallways from the administration, and that's a good marker to gauge student satisfaction generally.

Q: How did recruiters score MBAs graduating from non-U.S. schools vs. their U.S. counterparts?

Hazelwood:

One of the best pieces of news for international schools is that 75% of all -- not just international-- recruiters said MBAs from international schools were as good if not better than their U.S. counterparts. They also liked these students' language skills and their ability to jump from one culture to another seamlessly.

Q: Has Oxford's Said School improved in its stature?

Merritt:

The school is making some headway with students, but not so much with recruiters.

Q: Jen, any final thoughts on this year's rankings?

Merritt:

I think it has been an interesting time for B-schools. MBAs should be happy to know that the average pay package was up 26%, and only 11% of students were without jobs three months after graduation. Things are looking up.

We'll also have an e-book of extensive profiles of each of the Top 30, plus, the next 20 U.S. schools, and the Top 10 international. Look for that in late November or early December.

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