Geoff Garrett, dean of USC Marshall: “What I would like to see is better rankings of the other important things that business schools do”
It’s easy to attack MBA rankings, which is why just about everyone does it, especially those who feel their schools have not gotten their proper due. It’s not unusual to hear top-25 B-school deans or their deputies take to task specific rankings — or, when they’re in a really fine fettle, the concept of rankings in general. We hear it often!
Sometimes they make good points (and sometimes they absolutely destroy the ranking in question, as in the case of Bloomberg Businessweek‘s disastrous 2021 list). But in a new interview with Poets&Quants, Geoffrey Garrett of USC Marshall School of Business offers a different argument — a challenge less to the outcome of any one ranking and more to the way they are conducted, and what they purport to measure.
Crucially, Garrett doesn’t want to merely opine on rankings’ shortcomings; he wants to do something about it. So he has asked more than a dozen of his peers at top U.S. B-schools to meet with him this spring to hash out what a new rankings paradigm might look like.
B-SCHOOLS: MORE THAN JUST MBA PROGRAMS
Garrett, Marshall’s dean since 2020 and dean of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for six years before that, tells Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview that too often, rankings style themselves as holistic — as “business school” rankings, when they are really only judging a school’s full-time MBA.
“It’s easy to take a swipe at the rankings,” Garrett acknowledges. “We love them when we do well and we criticize them when we do less well. But I think there is a disconnect between what we rank and what business schools actually do. And this is the broader point: that the halo effect from the full-time MBA rankings is massive — and the terms ‘full-time MBA program’ and ‘business school’ are used interchangeably, even among people who are pretty close to the ground, pretty sophisticated about business schools.”
But of course B-schools offer a great deal more than full-time MBA programs. The last decade has seen the prominence of the traditional residential MBA wane as specialized master’s degrees and online MBAs have multiplied and grown. Garrett says schools and the magazines that rank them should not downplay what has historically been the flagship degree of most B-schools; instead, they should play up schools’ other offerings, starting with specialized master’s and undergraduate programs.
“We all pay so much attention to the full-time MBA rankings in a world in which, if you just look at what business schools do and where students go and all that stuff, full-time MBA is a really small percentage of the business school market,” he says. “Undergraduate is the biggest part of the market, and thanks to Poets&Quants for having a real metric-driven undergraduate market ranking. I’m so glad we did well in that. But then in the last decade, obviously you get the rise of specialized master’s degrees as well. And then even in the MBA marketplace, convenience has become a really big deal — part-time programs, online programs, etc.
“So my going-in observation would be that all the business schools pay attention to the full-time MBA rankings, which of course they should do, but the full-time MBA rankings are often called ‘best business school,’ and they actually don’t generalize to the whole business school. Twenty percent of all degrees issued are undergraduate business — so why wouldn’t you want your business school rankings to include that?”
NEEDED: RANKINGS FOR SPECIALIZED MASTER’S
It makes Garrett’s argument stronger that his schools have not been strangers to rankings success. This is not a story of sour grapes. Wharton, from 2017 to 2020, topped the U.S. News & World Report ranking three out of four years, and ranked second in the most recent iteration in 2021 (the magazine’s 2022 ranking is due next week). Wharton also was the annual winner of the U.S. News undergrad ranking and regularly topped The Financial Times‘ ranking that includes the leading European and Asian schools.
USC Marshall is, if anything, a more intriguing story. Even before Garrett arrived in July 2020, the Marshall School was the biggest gainer in U.S. News‘ top 25, moving up eight places between 2017 and 2021, to its current spot at 16th. Marshall has risen 12 points between the last two Forbes rankings, eight points in the latest Bloomberg list, and 12 spots in The Financial Times‘ 2022 global ranking. In Poets&Quants‘ annual aggregate ranking, USC is 18th; five years ago it was 26th. Meanwhile, in our undergraduate ranking, USC ranked third this year behind only Wharton and Georgetown McDonough School of Business.
“I’m very pleased that the improvements in the USC MBA program have been reflected in the rankings,” Garrett says. “That’s been great. And actually, it was bigger than that: I think six or seven years ago, the school was around 31st. It was 31 and has climbed to 16. That’s a big change.”
But the problem remains that most of USC’s massive program — including 10 specialized master’s degrees and an undergraduate program with more than 4,000 students — is not represented as part of the whole by any current rankings. The Marshall Master of Analytics program, for example, is “absolutely highest quality, and we don’t know how to talk about that — and one reason is, we don’t have rankings.”
Next page: Geoff Garrett’s plan for a spring conference of deans to tackle the question of how rankings are conducted
Former Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett accepted the top job at USC Marshall in 2019 and started in 2020. File photo
THE FUTURE OF THE MBA
Geoff Garrett doesn’t want to downplay the importance of the full-time MBA. Neither does he want to center it so completely in assessments of business school quality.
“Of course I’m committed to always improving the quality of the MBA program and hoping that’ll get reflected in the rankings,” he says, “but I just see on a daily basis that there’s so much more to the school than the full-time MBA. And it’s not an instead-of. I certainly wouldn’t want to be grist for the crisis of the MBA mill.
“So let’s talk about that for a second. I mean, I think two things are true: One is that the opportunity cost for a very successful 27 year old of going back to school and doing a full-time MBA, that opportunity cost is really high right now. And I think that puts good pressure on schools, which is, you’ve got to deliver a lot of value to overcome that opportunity cost. So I like that pressure. But at the same time, I think that we know that the kind of person doing a full-time MBA is different today than 20 or 30 years ago. The traditional kind of career passport — you need the MBA stamp to go to the next place in your career — that’s just decreasingly true, for a whole variety of reasons that we know.
“So I think what that means is that people who do the full-time MBA tend to be thinking about career reset. And to my mind, that’s a positive thing, right? Not a negative thing. And a lot of the career reset obviously entails people who are thinking about being entrepreneurs striking out on their own, where doing a high-quality, full-time MBA is a good place to think about a startup, because you’re going to meet a lot of people who can be very helpful to you. You’re going to be acquiring a lot of skills. And if your startup doesn’t work out, you’re still going to be really employable in other places.
“So opportunity cost is high. Programs have to deliver high quality. And then we just need to think about the kind of students that we’re getting. But let’s toggle back to undergraduate for a second. I believe — I certainly thought this at Wharton and I believe it at USC — that if we can launch students out of a great undergraduate degree, the probability is that they won’t come back to do an MBA, unless they want to do a big rethink of their careers, a career pivot. So it’s not either/or, it’s both, for me.”
CONVENING THE DEANS
In what could be the business school equivalent of a constitutional convention, Garrett has asked a group of his peers — deans at 15 of the top business schools in the U.S., based on which schools are ranked well in undergraduate, ranked well in MBA, and that have a specialized master’s portfolio — to attend a meeting this spring to discuss rankings. He hopes it will take place around May 20, though it has already been postponed by Covid-19 concerns.
What comes out of the meeting is anyone’s guess; even Garrett doesn’t know what to expect.
“I want to talk about all this stuff with them, because, again, I think there’s this disconnect between what business schools do and how we’re ranked, and what can we do about that is really the question.
“What I would like to see is better rankings of the other important things that business schools do. So again, thanks and congrats to Poets&Quants on the undergraduate side, because as you know, the U.S. News undergraduate ranking is just a beauty contest. They just ask me and all the other deans, ‘What do you think?’ And they can do better. I’d like to try to help them do better — so, having something like the attention that’s currently paid to full-time MBA, paid to undergraduate. I think that’d be great.”
‘COMMUNICATING MORE ACCURATELY WHAT WE DO’
A challenge for the schools as well as the rankers, Garrett says: How do we think about specialized master’s programs, and where do they fit into the mix and how should they be ranked?
“At the moment, it’s just all over the place, right?” he says. “I mean, very hit-and-miss, nothing particularly systematic. We don’t agree on what the important degrees are. So some conscious thought to that world, which plus or minus looks to me like 25% of the business school market is now in specialized master’s. That would be a good development. And maybe once you did that, you could do an index of the rankings. If you said, ‘Hey, basically there are these three lines of business for business schools: undergraduate, specialized master’s, MBA. Can we then put them together somehow?’
One problem: Many of the most elite business schools won’t be included, because they don’t have undergraduate programs or — in the case of Garrett’s former school, speccialized master’s.
“You don’t have Harvard, you don’t have Stanford, you don’t have Chicago, you don’t have Northwestern, and you don’t even have Wharton — Wharton has undergraduate, but they don’t have specialized master’s. But for me, that’s just an observation that the very top schools are a decreasingly representative sample of what business schools do, yet they have this outsized reputational impact — not only for their schools, but for everybody else, because the implicit is, ‘Hey, you’ve got to look like Harvard Business School or Stanford GSB.’
“That was basically what I said to all the deans. I said, ‘Hey, we’re all comprehensive schools. Let’s sit down together and talk about how we should think about that.’ The communication impact of the rankings in business schools is massive. So we’d like to be communicating more accurately what we do — that’s the way I think about it.”
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