What Does Thunderbird’s Ranking Mean?

I think the Dean might have this framed in his home. Courtesy of Thunderbird.

By Tanner Weigel, Editor-in-Chief and Staff Writer

If you’re a current student at Thunderbird, chances are you’ve heard that our school is ranked No. 1 in management. That sounds really nice. And, to be sure, any accolade is good news. But what does this No. 1 ranking actually mean? Who is Thunderbird compared against?

The ranking comes from the Times Higher Education and Wall Street Journal (THE/WSJ) business school report from December 2018 (I imagine new rankings will be released by end of year). Within the report, the business education landscape is divided into four categories: two-year MBA, one-year MBA, master’s in management, and master’s in finance. 

Within the two-year MBA category, you find who you would expect to find: Cornell, Stanford, Duke, Yale and the like. The one-year MBA ranking includes some well-regarded non-U.S. institutions, like IMD and Ivey. And then for the master’s in management, Thunderbird leads the pack (and quite convincingly in some categories); also on the list you can find Imperial College, Wake Forest and ESSEC. 

The THE/WSJ report uses a balanced scorecard approach to determine its rankings, with data aggregated across four categories: resources, engagement, outcomes and environment. The report bases the data on institutional reports and alumni survey responses. Thunderbird ranks first because its overall score is the highest; of the four categories, Thunderbird’s best ranking is “engagement” (89.4), and lowest is “environment” (40.7). The “environment” category includes a school’s proportion of international students and staff. While Thunderbird is not unique among U.S. institutions grappling with a decline in international student enrollment, I should think this score would be more concerning to a school that emphasizes global management. Now that I think about it, this THE/WSJ No. 1 ranking is for management in general, and doesn’t ostensibly focus on Thunderbird’s global expertise. 

What I also find interesting is that the alumni survey responses used for these rankings were from students who finished their degree programs in 2012, 2013, and 2015. What’s going to happen when the next few years of graduating cohorts are asked to complete these surveys? I worry when an institution places so much of its worth in one ranking. If and when Thunderbird drops in the THE/WSJ ranking (for reasons that may even be based outside of their control, depending on the metric), how will administration react? 

Let’s not forget that there are other organizations out there pumping out yearly rankings for institutions of higher education. While the THE/WSJ report does not include the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school in its top ten for MBA programs, U.S. News and World Report has it as No. 1. I can imagine Wharton alums would quickly disagree with the THE/WSJ report’s assessment. As far as I can tell, U.S. News and World Report, probably one of the most prolific and recognizable outlets for these rankings, only ranks Thunderbird’s online programs. The reason for this likely is found in the fact that U.S. News doesn’t appear to rank business programs that do not lead to an MBA. But if you don’t understand these nuances, Thunderbird’s absence in their rankings could cause great concern. Each organization that ranks colleges and universities is using some degree of subjectivity when deciding which programs to rank, and how to rank them.

A No. 1 ranking is a great thing. But I would hope that Thunderbird can see beyond one ranking and instead focus more on how it will differentiate itself going forward. Indeed, institutions that are obsessed with rankings run the risk of focusing only on those metrics that will boost their scores, without thinking more closely about their core competencies and sources of competitive advantage. Suppose I am an administrator at Thunderbird. Just because U.S. News or THE/WSJ or any other host of outlets doesn’t recognize the value of one of my programs or initiatives, should I then stop? I would hope that Thunderbird can think beyond the parameters that outsiders set (I am certainly not the only one to question our rankings-obsessed culture). 

Karl Marx is attributed with the (badly paraphrased) saying that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Rankings might just be the opiate of higher education: too much exposure to them will prevent institutions from focusing on what they do best, and from recruiting those students who will most benefit from and most fit in a given educational culture.

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