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Hate The MBA Rankings? What Lower-Ranked Business Schools Can Do To Compete

Outside the top-ranked elite, b-schools in the US are developing new strategies to stay competitive

By  Jonathan Pfeffer

Tue Sep 12 2017

There’s a feeding frenzy at elite business schools right now with every Stanford, Harvard or Wharton applicant—and there are plenty—sweating bullets that a name brand degree is their only ticket to ride.

For Michelle Miller, CEO of MBA admissions consultancy ARINGO Americas, rankings perpetuate this vicious cycle among elite schools: “[They] attract the top professors and staff, receive higher funding and donations, and, of course, organizations want to be connected to these schools so they recruit on campus,” she says.

B-schools generally agree that rankings are a necessary evil, given the perspective they offer prospective b-schoolers to compare their options, as well as the potential they have to expose programs to a massive audience.

The flip side is that many equally excellent, if not superior, b-schools with less marquee names are failing to attract applicants, due in no small part to their reps in the rankings. 

Since perception is everything, many argue that the distinction between tiers needs to be reconsidered to avoid conflations between prestige and quality.’s Linda Abraham says: “The bottom 10 programs in US News & World Report (USNWR) rankings are still in the top 20% of the 500 MBA programs that participated in the USNWR survey. That context provides valuable perspective to applicants considering programs in the bottom half of US News ranked programs. I'm not sure it's fair or accurate to call those ten schools ‘underperforming.’”

The US News rankings are tabulated based on three major factors: recruiter assessment and student placement; class GMAT and GPA scores; and peer assessments from admins at other schools.

Administrators agree that the metrics used to evaluate schools don’t paint accurate portraits. Dean Latha Ramchand of the University of Houston’s CT Bauer College of Business says:

“The absence of a student or alumni satisfaction component in the US News rankings is rather odd. In addition, intangible factors such as the ‘feel’ of the learning environment, or the ‘fit’ of a particular applicant to a specific program are important, neither of which is captured in rankings.”

In fact, at lower-ranked business schools, students can still get a world-class education at a fraction of the price and a sliver of the admissions headache.

 Jeff Thomas, CEO of Stratus Admissions Counseling, sings the praises of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, despite a low USNWR ranking:

“[Thunderbird’s] overall ranking on USNWR is 88 (of 93). However, if you look behind the numbers, Thunderbird is ranked fourth in terms of its international program. If an MBA candidate knows that they want to work internationally after earning an MBA, they can receive a top-five international business education at the 88th-ranked business school!”

What can lower-ranked schools do to compete with the so-called big dogs?

While many lower-ranked schools build their operations around niches, MBA consultant Paul Bodine notes that location is a key factor that sustains the bottom 10 of USNWR’s top 100:

“[These schools] survive because they have established niches in urban areas (Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Rochester etcetera) that are sufficiently large to provide enough applicants and hiring employers to give these schools a locally-valuable brand.

“They can survive and even thrive if they strengthen their local roots and brand, provide value for tuition dollars, keep innovating, gradually tighten standards and perhaps partner with institutions outside their region.”

Eric Koomen, communications and marketing director at RIT’s Saunders College of Business agrees: “Salaries are an important outcome for many students, and salary metrics typically favor schools that are located in the largest cities. Therefore, salaries are likely higher for those schools, but salary data does not account for cost of living considerations which are important relative to lifetime savings and overall return on investment for going to college.”

Innovation is a key theme for institutions all across the board, but more so for lower-ranked schools who must keep themselves abreast of the latest admissions developments in order to stay afloat.

Chioma Isiadinso of EXPARTUS suggests: “Hybrid models of online and on-campus or through unique specializations that allow them to build ties with the companies in their region. Targeted marketing efforts to reach the audience interested in their program is necessary for these programs to survive.”

Ultimately, lower-ranked programs have to develop some kind of competitive advantage to attract applicants who increasingly have more options at their disposal.