Corruption in the MBA and EMBA Rankings

19 March 2023

Illustration by Sergei Brovkin and StarryAI

Today, I am glad to feature a blog authored by Ron Duerksen, the global executive director of International Masters Program for Managers, and responsible for Executive Education at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Ron has extensive experience in the field of executive education, and his fresh and thought-provoking perspective on the topic is relevant to the readers of this TWOG.

Fourteen of the top law schools recently announced they will pull out of the US News & World Report’s annual rankings. They say the rankings punish schools whose graduates pursue public interest jobs or advanced degrees, while rewarding those that spend more on students and drive-up tuition. School leaders claim the rankings rely on flawed survey techniques and opaque and arbitrary formulas, lacking the transparency needed to help applicants make truly informed decisions, and that the methodology creates perverse incentives.

The same “perverse incentives” and biases have plagued MBA and EMBA rankings for decades. So why are top business schools so silent? Because they are part of a system driven more by money than morals.

What’s wrong with MBA and EMBA Rankings? 

Almost everything. Most focus primarily on graduating salaries as a metric of success, or other questionable criteria that they have deemed important. None adequately addresses the overall quality of students, professors, and learning outcomes, or the impact graduates have on organizations or society, simply because these are harder to measure. No school is rewarded for being different or innovative.

The wealthiest students can afford the most expensive schools, and in turn receive the highest salaries, thus rewarding their schools with higher rankings. It’s a vicious cycle that has seen top-ranked MBA and EMBA programs charge upwards of $USD 200,000 for the treasured degree.

Schools can easily game the system. FT rankings require only 20% of alumni to respond (or a minimum of 20 responses). It’s rather simple to have the alumni fill out the survey only if they have very high salaries. And the more students/alumni you have, the more data points you can choose from to skew your school’s ranking in the right direction.

While there are separate MBA and EMBA rankings, the methodology and criteria are identical. Does a 45-year-old C-suite executive have the same needs (e.g. skills), goals and objectives as a 25-year-old junior manager?  Of course not. And most EMBA programs also mimic MBAs in terms of learning and (business function) structure, ignoring the gold mine that is the experience and knowledge of their senior executive participants. What a waste!

Diversity be Damned

The higher up the schools go in terms of tuition, the lower the diversity of their students. Programs costing more than $USD 150,000 comprise mainly Caucasians (almost 70%). The most expensive programs are also the most likely to get employer financial support.
What of international diversity, when more than 75% of EMBA participants are either from North America or Asia? Schools in poorer countries struggle to attract the same placement in rankings, even those that have excellent programs. More than 50% of the FT top 100 MBAs are American schools, with only one from Latin America and none from Africa. FT EMBA rankings include only two from Latin America and none from Africa.

Let’s hope that top business schools can set an example by focusing on learning and its positive impact on organizations and society, and cease to be distracted by these questionable rankings—just as those law schools had the courage to do.


Personal note: I was once responsible for two of the top-ranked EMBA programs in the world at a leading business school. Today I work at McGill University where we have three excellent executive programs: the International Masters Program for Managers, the McGill-HEC Montreal EMBA and the International Masters for Health Leadership. In my opinion, these programs are much more cutting-edge and relevant than what I have seen from top-ranked EMBA programs. None of these programs would do well in the rankings. Why? Because  they were not shaped with rankings in mind. They were created with the vision of tapping into the experience of executives as a major part of the learning experience. And instead of teaching disciplines in functional siloes, these programs integrate several business functions under “managerial mindsets” which fosters innovation and creative problem-solving. We measure the success through the impact of our graduates. Many are leading some of the world’s most successful organizations, some of them helping to change broken systems in health care and government. There, they may not be making the highest salaries, but boy  are they making a difference.

This is adapted from an opinion piece originally published in Poets & Quants.