Parsing the Undergrad Rankings

BusinessWeek editors talk about the criteria and results of the Best Undergrad B-Schools rundown for 2007

BusinessWeek recently released its 2007 rankings of the top undergraduate business programs (see, 3/19/07, "The Best Undergrad B-Schools"). In its second year, the rankings offered lots of surprises—from more eligible schools to programs that catapulted to the top since last year.

The rankings were unsealed in a live chat event on Mar. 8. B-schools editor Louis Lavelle (LouisBW) and staff editor Geoff Gloeckler (GeoffBW) counted down the top programs and fielded questions from reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW) and an audience of readers, undergrad business students, and administrators. Here's an edited transcript of the discussion:

FrancescaBW: Here's one that comes from someone who couldn't join us today: "Can you offer some ideas as to why the MBA and undergrad rankings can differ so dramatically for the same school? For example, why is Notre Dame top 5 for undergrad (at least last year) and their MBA program is 26? I just find the discrepancy fascinating."

LouisBW: To state the obvious, these are two different programs. The rankings between programs at the same school differ the same way rankings between schools differ: They have different strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, as you know, many schools shower most of the perks on MBA programs, leaving the undergrads to fend for themselves in many ways, so it's not unusual to have a highly ranked MBA program and a poorly ranked undergraduate business program.

ksob2007: How were the responses from students this year?

GeoffBW: We have a few questions like this, either about student responses or about changes to the methodology. Louis will talk about the methodology in a moment, but in terms of the students we surveyed, we ended up getting about 23,000 responses from students at 123 universities. Last year, we surveyed juniors and seniors, but this year we only surveyed seniors because we found that students enrolled in two-year programs didn't have enough experience with the business program to answer our questions completely.

Spartanhoops: I heard you changed your methodology this year. Why?

LouisBW: There were several questions about our methodology, so let me try to answer them. We haven't made any major changes to our methodology this year, and we don't plan to in future years. The only change we made was to incorporate last year's student survey into this year's ranking. Next year, we plan to incorporate three years of survey data into the ranking —2008, 2007, and 2006.

mrobin: Is it more important to have an MBA or an undergrad business degree?

GeoffBW: This is a question we talk about a lot. It really depends on your goals. If you know that you eventually want to get an MBA, many folks will tell you that you might be better off majoring in something that's more liberal arts-focused. If an MBA isn't in the cards for you, then it might make sense to major or minor in business. If you're concerned about not being able to get a job if you major in English or the arts, don't worry. Many employers have training programs for smart people like you, so you can catch up to those students who majored in business.

cooljoenyc: Fordham jumped up in the rankings from last year. What did students like about Fordham?

LouisBW: You're right, Fordham jumped from No. 48 last year to No. 34 this year—a pretty incredible leap. The main reason seemed to be the school's location at the epicenter of the business world, which means that it gets a lot of recruiters for both internships and full-time jobs at graduation.

hotstuff: Why are your rankings valid considering the fact that student comments count for so much? Obviously, students would say good things about their school to boost the rankings.

LouisBW: You would be surprised just how negative (or honest, depending on your point of view) some students can be. Overall, we get very few students who answer uncritically. Most tell us just how they feel, and it's not always pretty. Also, the student survey counts for only 30% of the ranking.

mrobin: I'm a junior in high school. What qualities is a top business school looking for in terms of leadership, extracurricular activities, academics, etc.? And does it really matter if you go to Wharton, vs. a weaker school such as Kelley?

GeoffBW: In my opinion, it all depends on what you want out of a university and a college experience. Wharton is a great school, the best if you go by our rankings. If you want to work on Wall Street, it's a great choice. Schools like Indiana are quite strong as well, and, if you live in Indiana, it's a heck of a lot cheaper. My advice would be to seriously look at both schools or any schools you're considering. Visit them, talk to students, and see which one you feel is the best.

yipuxia: Why is your ranking so different from that of U.S. News?

LouisBW: Because our ranking is better! Seriously, the U.S. News ranking is based on a survey of deans and senior faculty, many of whom aren't really familiar with the programs they're ranking. Ours is based on actual student and recruiter survey data, the number of students that get into top MBA programs, starting salaries, and academic quality, as measured by such things as the number of students with internships, how many hours they spend studying, etc. The two rankings really can't be compared.

ctsoccerchick6: Why are the undergraduate rankings coming out annually when the MBA rankings come out bi-annually?

GeoffBW: This is a decision we made last year. We felt that because there are so many high school students going through the college selection process each year (and with business being the most popular major, by far), it seemed like a good idea to update our information annually.

mrobin: What are the major differences between four-year undergrad business programs and other shorter term programs?

LouisBW: All other things being equal, four-year programs and three-year programs have a big advantage over two-year programs for two reasons: You can take advanced business classes earlier, which makes you a more competitive candidate for top internships, and you can have more than one internship, which seriously improves your chances of landing the job you want at graduation.

po0kie: Which companies were among the undergraduate recruiters you polled for the ratings?

GeoffBW: The companies that we surveyed come from the schools themselves. We asked each school to provide us with a list of top recruiters. We then contacted the companies. Of the more than 400 we contacted, we got responses from nearly 250, many more than last year. Among these, were all kinds and sizes of companies, from all over the country.

Gerry: Why did Northeastern improve from 37 last year to 26?

LouisBW: Northeastern improved on several measures, especially the percentage of students who got into top MBA programs. Also, students there earn about $50,000 a year, up from $45,000 in 2006.

photomom: My daughter is looking at going to a business school on the West Coast since we live in Nevada. Do you have any suggestions for schools in California, Nevada, Oregon, or Arizona? It's too late to get into Berkeley, and she doesn't want to go to Utah.

GeoffBW: While I don't want to single out particular schools, I would recommend visiting after this chat and looking over the newly updated school profiles. While we don't have any Nevada schools in the ranking, we do have quite a few from the other states you mention. There are also school tours and stories about many of the ranked programs. Hopefully, those will help you in your family's decision.

Expert: What accounts for so much variability in the rankings for some schools, such as Berkeley, UT-Austin, and Indiana ?

LouisBW: Good question. The main reason you see a lot of changes is that we ranked 30 new schools this year, and nine of them entered the top 50. With all the new schools in the ranking, schools will fall even if nothing has changed, so the lower ranking is no reflection on the school itself.

In a year like this, a better measure than the ranking itself is the percentile. If a school was in the tenth percentile last year and the tenth percentile this year—regardless of its rank—it basically stayed the same.

Austin: Which schools were best capable of transcending their geographical limitations and capable of receiving job recruiters from out of area and abroad?

GeoffBW: Good question, Austin. If you look at the interactive table that's online, you will notice a column called "Recruiter Survey Rank." The schools that are ranked the highest are the ones that do the best at attracting recruiters from across the country and even some global firms. Among them are Berkeley, BYU, Wharton, and UT-Austin (though we did get some complaints from students from the state of Texas about lack of out-of-state recruiters). Hey, recruiters, go mess with Texas!

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