By Lee Davidson
In “On Academic Rankings, Unacceptable Methods, and the Social Obligations of Business Schools,” forthcoming in the May issue of Decision Sciences, 21 business school academics and administrators from institutions across the U.S. systematically assess the rankings system that has proliferated in media publications over the past several decades. The article, available now for early access, has already begun to create a stir in major news outlets. The authors point to flawed methodologies, misleading information, and a lack of transparency as an ultimate disservice to society, defined in the article as “both a source of as well as the ultimate destination for our students. Society is the broader context within which our graduates in turn can play a pivotal role, executing on what they have learned in our classrooms and hallways.”
That business school rankings methodologies are deficient in conveying meaningful information to consumers is not a new argument. An AACSB task force published a research report on the rankings “dilemma” in 2006, noting that “the variables are constantly changing and are not proven as a measure of quality.” AACSB’s BizEd magazine ran feature articles first in 2005, in a piece titled “The Rankings Race,” then in 2006 with “European Business Schools Take on the Rankings,” and most recently in the 2015 article “Redefining Quality,” which, like the upcoming Decision Sciences article, pushes for a rating versus a ranking system. Even the publisher of one newer ranking acknowledges that “all rankings are to some extent flawed, often including metrics that have little to do with educational quality.” But business schools cannot seem to escape the trap of rankings, which is just one complaint tied into many in this latest article.
The authors lay out the principal problems they perceive in business school ranking methodologies:
- School data is over-aggregated and reduced into a single ordinal number
- Third-party data collection is not sufficiently validated to ensure accuracy, and this lack of validity goes against the very research methods that are taught and practiced in business schools
- Criteria are predetermined by the media organizations that publish rankings, potentially excluding school information that might be of greater importance to decision-makers
- Students are multidimensional; methodologies are not, and in fact they aim to be as reductive as possible in order to achieve one ordinal number
- Methodologies, although available, are not made easily decipherable for the intended audience, perhaps intentionally so
- Rankings create inherent biases by reinforcing areas of study that lead to high-paying jobs, like finance, which cannot be every school’s strong point; meanwhile business school programs flourish in a variety of disciplines
- Factors that make schools distinct are removed from ranking measures in an effort to create uniformity in a landscape of diverse schools, programs, and prospective students
- Geographic location and cost of living is not taken into account when reporting job placement and salary figures
- The heterogeneity of the student population is neglected: by virtue of their few and select measures and a single weighting, rankings instead imply that students are a homogeneous body
A common gripe, particularly in recent years that have seen students increasingly interested in working for social good—jobs not typically associated with high salaries but that pay out in job fulfillment and quality of life, is that rankings overemphasize salary outcomes, neglecting to report on the benefit to society. As the authors of this latest article state, “Rankings such as these ultimately place very little emphasis on students’ learning or societal benefits; instead focusing almost exclusively on the short-term economic returns of their education for graduates.”
The problems inherent in rankings are well acknowledged. But what are the proposed solutions? Ultimately, the authors call for an “engagement roadmap,” wherein academic institutions—particularly including those that benefit the most from rankings—and organizing bodies (such as AACSB) collaborate to find a different approach that results in “transparency, interpretability, and the empowerment of individual decision makers by whatever criteria truly suits their individual needs.” They suggest “the development of working groups” that “will pre-empt any need to consider a low-road in this space.” They call for boldness, for a collective effort of the academic community, and for a more meaningful and equitable system.
The authors acknowledge that media comparisons of business schools will not go away; after all, these are researchers and educators, so they understand the effectiveness of the underlying business model. In fact, they plainly state that this particular business model serves the media organizations well and therefore they “have no reason to change what they do, as long as what they do appeals to a large enough market.” But what the authors hope is that the rankings publishers are open to a different, more ethical model.
As far as AACSB’s approach, our goal is to highlight the value that accreditation brings to a variety of business schools worldwide. We hold our accredited schools to rigorous standards, and we strive to demonstrate how meeting those standards leads to quality and innovation and impact. We engage with our accredited and member schools in initiatives that enable them to showcase their strengths. We put a spotlight on their innovations; we seek out and celebrate their successful alumni; we boast about their achievements and expand the accreditation conversation broadly; and we not only educate prospective and current business students on rankings and the meaning and value of AACSB Accreditation, but we also provide a platform for them to explore accredited schools. That is our place—to tell the stories of accredited schools globally and why they are excellent, unique, and of benefit to society.
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