Which MBA is the best?

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HEC Montréal students in a lecture. (HEC Montréal)
HEC Montréal students in a lecture. (HEC Montréal)

Two years ago, Connor Irving decided he wanted to go back to school. After several years at the Alberta Securities Commission, he had an aching to be on the other side, making deals instead of scrutinizing them. So Irving did what thousands of would-be MBAs around the world do every year: he went out and bought a thick stack of ranking guides to help him decide which program was right for him.

Over the past 25 years, MBA programs around the world have grown used to being poked, prodded and analyzed for annual or semi-annual MBA rankings by outlets like Businessweek, the Financial Times and the Economist. Today most big-name schools participate in at least some of the rankings, which measure things like graduate satisfaction and salaries, prestige among recruiters and return on investment. For some, pushing business school rankings has become a cornerstone of their marketing strategy.

This year, for the first time in a decade, the Canadian Business MBA Guide includes our ranking of Canadian MBA programs. And while we know readers will appreciate the service, the idea of ranking got a mixed reaction from the schools themselves.

In the end, York University’s Schulich School of Business topped our list (see below), a fact that will surprise few. Under dean Dezsö Horváth, Schulich has become a rankings darling: it competes in all the major competitions and has come out as the top Canadian school, and one of the best schools in the world, on many recent lists. Horváth himself considers rankings “an invaluable tool for measuring performance.” In a statement to Canadian Business he said, “Surveys are by no means the final word on the quality or performance of a business school, but they do offer prospective students and corporate recruiters a truly independent and objective assessment.”

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compas-logoReputation ranking is based on a survey of HR professionals carried out on our behalf by Compas Research. By convention, the study can be deemed accurate to within approximately 7.7%, 19 times out of 20.

Indeed, in many cases, rankings and guides provide the only third-party data potential students can find on various schools. There is no hard information available about how much of a role that data plays in determining school choice, says Matt Symonds, the chief editor of MBA50.com, a website that aggregates and studies MBA surveys. But anecdotally, he says, some schools have reported seeing bumps in interest after placing well in one or more of the rankings.

The Beedie School of Business, at Simon Fraser University, has not traditionally participated in the major global rankings. Potential students often ask why they can’t find the school on those lists, says David Hannah, Beedie’s academic chair. It’s often a question of allocating scarce budgets. “It does take quite a lot of resources to play the rankings game,” Hannah says. Some schools hire full-time employees to work on rankings, tracking alumni with elaborate surveys. Hannah says Beedie would rather spend that money on things that improve the classroom experience for students.

The Rotman School at the University of Toronto did not participate in the Canadian Business survey, but Rotman is not entirely anti-rankings. In fact, there is a page on its website dedicated to the school’s impressive showings in various surveys. Rotman’s acting dean Peter Pauly believes rankings are useful when they break down all the different metrics used to measure the different schools. “That having been said, where they are of very little use, and actually in fact quite damaging, is when they attempt to condense multiple metrics into one overall ranking,” he says.

mba chart 02Rankings have their critics. But the world before Businessweek published the first comprehensive MBA survey in 1988 was no nirvana. In the 1980s, most business schools were “as customer-friendly as AT&T when it had a monopoly,” John A. Byrne, who was the editor of Businessweek at the time, recently wrote. “The schools didn’t run roughshod over the students, but the faculty pulled all of the shots,” says Symonds. “There was no accountability.”

When he was considering his MBA options, Irving looked at the rankings published by Businessweek and the Financial Times, as well the Canadian Business MBA Guide. He used them together as an initial filter to build a short list. In the end he chose the Ivey Business School, at Western University, partially based on salary and recruitment numbers he found in rankings and partially on other factors he dug up on his own, like the school’s alumni network in Calgary.

In truth, there is no one “best” MBA program in Canada, or in the world, of course. Our particular ranking emphasizes return on investment: how much of a salary bump graduates can expect compared to how much money they put into a degree. And for many would-be students, that is the most important consideration. For others, though, factors like academic culture, location or alumni networks may be just as, or even more important than pure finances.

To make sure we give the broadest possible view of program quality, then, we’ve stacked our rankings up against those published by other major organizations and broken down which factors go into each. The goal is to make sure aspiring students have the information they need to decide not which is the best MBA program, but which is the best MBA program for them.

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