Battling Over B-School Rankings

One publisher drops Harvard and Wharton from its list in spat over data and access to alumni and students.
October 3, 2005

When the Economist Intelligence Unit published its annual ranking of business schools late last month, readers may have been surprised by the absence of Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. No, the schools hadn’t suffered a precipitious decline in quality that dropped the perennial top performers out of the top 10 – they had been excluded from the survey entirely, because of what the Economist cited as a lack of cooperation on the two schools’ part (though school officials prefer to characterize it differently).

The dispute between the business school behemoths and the British publishing giant is the latest in a series of spats over commercial rankings of institutions of higher education, with which most college officials have a love-hate relationship (they tend to love the publicity when they fare well, but increasingly bemoan the extent to which the rankings shape, and misshape, student opinion and skew the priorities of institutions that alter their practices to align to rise in the rankings).

Skirmishing over business school rankings have been especially intense, given the high cost of attending the schools, their visibility among movers and shakers in the United States and elsewhere, and the numerous high profile publishers and others (including the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week) that rate business schools. College officials cite the rankings' flawed methodologies and what their "one size fits all" approach to assessing schools' strength; typical is this comment by Wharton's dean, Patrick Harker: "We can't have it both ways. We either endorse a defective, inconsistent practice, or we speak out, offer better alternatives for information, and work with the media to enable them to report with more useful, objective data."

But rarely have colleges – even highly prominent ones like Harvard and Wharton that may most be best positioned to take such a stand -- taken steps that have led them to be left out of rankings altogether.

Three years ago, both institutions stopped giving The Economist’s annual book, Which MBA?, and other publications that rank business schools access to survey their students and alumni, which most institutions provide either by giving the publications e-mail lists or sending the rankings surveys to the students themselves.

“For privacy reasons, Harvard Business School, like many schools, has had a longstanding policy of not providing any commercial entity or other organizations with access to our students, except for these occasional exceptions for media that do rankings,” said David R. Lampe, executive director of marketing and communications at the school. “We decided, why should we do that for the media?”

Which MBA? worked around that issue by finding other ways to contact the students and graduates, and included both Harvard and Wharton in the 2004 rankings (and both finished in the top 10).

But late last year, the two institutions upped the ante, deciding that they would no longer fill out the separate survey forms that each rankings entity sends to institutions, requesting roughly similar but slightly differing data. Simply fulfilling data requests from the 20 or so entities that survey business schools each year has been more than a half-time job at Harvard, says Lampe. “All these surveys that have proliferated in the business press are causing quite a drain, and we thought, why not gather the data once a year, and post it once a year all in one place in one format?”

What Harvard Business School has done is to post on its Web site all of the objective data that it has produced as part of the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Pathfinder database, which is designed to be a centralized receptable of common, objective, audited information about admissions, enrollment and employment information at business schools. When the project, long in the works, is fully up and running, each prospective student will be able to set up his or her own way of searching the collected information to find the institution that is the best fit for him or her.

“The industry is in best possible position to define the data elements that should be reported about the industry,” says Daphne Atkinson, vice president for industry relations at the GMAC.

Using those definitions, Harvard is making a slew of data and other information available – just not in the format that the Economist wants it in, Lampe says. “It’s not as though we’re trying to be uncooperative. We’re putting information out there that’s available to any media outlet as well as to any particular student, free.”

Bill Ridgers, an editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and editor of Which MBA?, says it regrets that Harvard and Wharton have declined to provide the statistics in the format that the company needs to rank them alongside their peers. “If you’re going to compare schools one against the other, you need standard information,” he says, adding that he is sympathetic to the idea that the various ranking organizations seek information that is just different enough to require significant work on the schools’ part.

Ridgers says he welcomes the creation of the Pathfinder database, because “the more data that’s available the better students are able to make the right choice.”

But no matter how much it helps students, he says, an objective collection of data like the GMAC project will not do what the Economist’s rankings and others do: provide an independent, qualitative assessment of the schools. The Wall Street Journal’s rankings are based on the perceptions of corporate recruiters, for instance, and the Economist’s and others are supplemented by surveys of students and alumni.

“Students spend a lot of money going to business school – tens of thousands of dollars in fees a year, and often tens of thousands of dollars in forgone salary,” Ridgers says. “Our role as media organizations is to provide not only the information that the schools would like students to see, but to ask the schools the questions that the students would like answered.” He adds: We wouldn’t for one second suggest that any student should make a choice of business school based on our rankings. But it can be an extremely useful tool.”

Ridgers says that he has seen “no signs” that other business schools are following the lead of Harvard and Wharton: “They accept it, and see it as a valuable tool for students. The rankings will continue whether or not Harvard and Wharton are included.”

On that he and the folks at Harvard agree: “The rankings are here to stay; there may be more of them next year than there are today,” says Lampe. “We’re just developing what I would call alternative tools to facilitate the process students use to make their decisions.”


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