Behind the Rankings

Despite a slump in student satisfaction, executive programs generally remain a good investment, say BW's Louis Lavelle and Geoff Gloeckler

BusinessWeek recently announced the surprising results of the 2005 Executive Education and EMBA rankings. Many new faces grace the top tiers. B-schools Editor Louis Lavelle and reporter Geoff Gloeckler recently shared insight about the rankings and fielded questions from BusinessWeek Online reporter Francesca Di Meglio and the online audience during a live chat event. Here's an edited transcript:

Can you please spend some time explaining the criteria used to produce your rankings?

Lavelle:

Our rankings are based on two surveys By far the most important one is the student survey. This year, we surveyed 3,400 members of the 2005 graduating class at 64 programs. We also survey EMBA program directors -- 61 in all. The two surveys and other data are combined to create the rankings. This year we made some minor changes to assign more weight to students. They have the most direct knowledge about their programs.

Geoff, can you please give us a brief explanation of what executive-education programs are?

Gloeckler:

Sure. This year marks the second time that we ranked open and custom-enrollment programs separately. Open programs are open to participants from a variety of companies, with topics ranging from strategy to global business. These last a few days and are hosted on the B-school campus. Custom programs are designed specifically with a company in mind. Typically, the company and provider work together to plan a program.

Can you also give us a brief overview of what new and exciting things you discovered as you did the reporting on the executive-education programs?

Gloeckler:

For starters, the big trend is toward custom programs. Previously, open enrollment was the more popular choice, but in the past decade or so, custom programs account for the majority of courses.

More and more companies are looking for a "business" focus, and they don't want to be lectured. They want to be part of a dialogue or discussion, or, better still, a simulation that puts participants into the driver's seat. Also, we're seeing a rise in international programs and an increased interest in globalization.

Were there any dramatic changes in the open-enrollment rankings from 2003? If so, what?

Gloeckler:

The biggest jump comes from Queen's School of Business, which was unranked in 2003 and moved all the way up to No. 10 in 2005. In our research, we found that companies appreciated the way that Queen's was able to adapt to current issues as well as use various business models and teaching methods.

INSEAD and the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) were also movers, which goes back to the global focus that many companies are interested in.

Were there any dramatic changes in the custom rankings?

Gloeckler:

The schools and companies that are doing it right are getting out of the classroom and putting participants into various scenarios. Think action learning. It was interesting to see how many programs are based outside of the U.S. There are some pretty amazing things going on in Europe. INSEAD and IMD, for instance, are extremely strong.

What are the commonalities among the cluster of providers at the top of each ranking?

Gloeckler:

For custom programs, Duke Corporate Education is in a class all its own. Because custom education is its focus, Duke CE is able to devote all of its resources to providing exactly what the client wants.

IMD and INSEAD follow close behind in getting out of the academic mentality and into the business mindset. In open enrollment, Harvard, INSEAD, and IMD received top marks in nearly every category -- from innovation to global business.

What new and interesting things did you find when reporting the EMBA rankings?

Lavelle:

First of all, there were many changes. In all, 10 programs moved up in the rankings and 12 programs fell. The other big trend we noticed was a continued slump in student satisfaction across the board. In 2003, student satisfaction took a beating. A difficult economy and weak job growth made a high-priced EMBA degree seem like a questionable choice, especially for the growing number of EMBA students who were paying their own way.

In 2005, student satisfaction didn't get any better or worse. I think one reason has to do with those students who are paying the bills. They're demanding far more from their programs in terms of course selection, top-notch faculty, and logistical support. And if they don't get it, it colors their whole perception of the program. Bottom line: Students are a lot pickier when they're footing the bill.

A few programs made big leaps. What made them stand out?

Lavelle:

The Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan is pretty indicative of the trend. Here's a school that wasn't even ranked in 2001 or 2003, and it landed at No. 4 here because of the caliber of its students and its instructors' ability to make the most of student knowledge in the classroom.

In fact, on those two measures, it even beat No. 1-ranked Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Many schools that made big leaps in the rankings did so for similar reasons.

Which programs are noticeably absent from the list?

Lavelle:

The program most notable for its absence has to be Columbia Business School. Ranked at No. 15 in 2003, it fell out of the rankings completely this year. Students told us they were seriously dissatisfied with the program. They criticized it for having limited course offerings, classes that provided highlights but little substantive knowledge, and poorly prepared classmates. One graduate told us: "Columbia had 120 spots to fill. They were going to fill them regardless of the quality of the students." Many Columbia grads echoed that sentiment.

What important factors do students typically overlook when deciding on a school that the rankings take into consideration?

Lavelle:

That's hard to say, but I think the rankings put a lot of weight on things like teaching quality and the caliber of the student body that prospective students really can't determine until they sit down in the classroom -- at which point it's too late.

How do you control for students trying to game the survey to maximize results for their school?

Lavelle:

We examine the survey results very carefully. For instance, if a program that has scored so-so on teaching quality suddenly goes off the charts, we would question that.

Do you think EMBA programs are getting more respect from recruiters?

Lavelle:

I don't think recruiters give EMBA programs much thought. After all, most EMBA students still receive at least some backing from their employers, and when the program is over most continue at those jobs.

That's starting to change. In 2005, according to GMAC, 39% of EMBA grads were looking for new jobs at graduation, up from 17% just three years earlier. So who knows? Maybe recruiters will one day start showing up at EMBA programs.

Could you explain why you split up the Duke EMBA programs for the rankings?

Lavelle:

It's pretty simple, actually. These are two separate programs. They may have the same content, but the students never take classes together.

We're getting many questions about what the typical EMBA student is like. Could you share the profile with us?

Lavelle:

I think the typical EMBA student is a high-potential executive looking for a credential that will result in a promotion and a raise. But they're also looking to expand their knowledge base in a way that allows them to do their jobs more effectively.

I think many of the students who responded to our survey were married with children, but not everyone. And more and more, they're not locals. They're traveling great distances -- some are commuting cross-country -- to get to their EMBA programs. All in all, they're a pretty diverse group.

Louis, any parting words?

Lavelle:

These programs are still viewed as a pretty good investment in time and money. Judging from our survey responses, I don't see that changing any time soon.

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