Over the years, we’ve interviewed many leaders from the MBA industry including admission officers of the top business schools and international admissions consultants.
However, there have been many uncomfortable questions – about US visa policies, gaming the rankings, the futility of GMAT scores – that did not seem appropriate for those interviews, primarily because we weren’t sure if we’d get a response that went beyond diplomatic rhetoric.
With John A. Byrne, founder of Poets and Quants (which tops our list of the best MBA websites) we knew we could push the envelope and get brutally honest answers.
He’s an accomplished journalist, editor, author and now media entrepreneur. He created the first regularly published ranking of business schools. Byrne has authored more than ten business books, including two New York Times bestsellers. He has been executive editor of Businessweek magazine and editor-in-chief of Fast Company magazine.
At Businessweek, he holds the record for writing 58 cover stories. In fact, Byrne is the only journalist to have written cover articles for all three major business magazines in America: Businessweek, Fortune, and Forbes (he also wrote one for Fast Company while editor). Five years ago, Byrne founded C-Change Media which owns and runs PoetsandQuants along with three other higher education websites.
Here’s the no-holds barred interview with the Guru of MBA Rankings on all that’s wrong (and right) about the MBA industry.
Sameer Kamat: What were the big challenges when you launched your independent venture after working for established brands?
John A. Byrne: Obviously, there is a lot of entrenched competition in the MBA space with such big brands as The Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, U.S. News, Princeton Review and others there for many years.
But having launched the first regularly published business school ranking for Businessweek in 1988, I knew this territory very well. I watched as rivals emerged to Businessweek and we expanded the franchise with guidebooks, frequent editorial coverage of business schools, the first online community, Internet chats, and the rest.
But the problem with traditional media is that reporters largely write for themselves, not their readers. They write about what they’re interested in rather than what their readers need to know or want to know.
From the start, we wrote with the MBA applicant in mind and that has been the key to our success. So the big challenge was breaking through all the clutter out there and to do the stories that mattered to the best applicants to the top 100 schools in the world.
Sameer: You chose to launch multiple websites at the same time for undergrads, Executive MBA and Law. How has each site performed?
John: Originally, the goal was to create a dozen niche business websites, places that would specialize in areas of coverage that I felt were important but received little attention from traditional media, things like doing business in India, disruptive entrepreneurs, business schools, etc.
The first site I launched was PoetsandQuants.com and it took off so well that I decided to pivot and build a higher education company instead. So that’s why we branched out and launched PoetsandQuantsforExecs.com, TippingTheScales.com, and PoetsandQuantsforUndergrads.com.
They’re all doing very well. Traffic keeps going up for all the sites, and we have some really terrific plans to deepen our importance to the reader in each of these fields.
Sameer: How did you get the initial traction for the primary website? What scale has it achieved now? What were the important milestones in the journey?
John: That’s simple. We aggressively used social media. Months before launch, we had a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, and a LinkedIn group.
I knew it would take Google awhile to index a new site but I also knew that at the time Google was indexing social media which at the time was relatively new. So we seeded the market with our brand well before PoetsandQuants debuted in August of 2010.
Since then, that one site alone has had more than 56 million page views. Our page-views were up 44% last year. Google referrals rose 57% last year. We’ve had record year-over-year traffic in each of the past 23 consecutive months.
Only last month, we hit new monthly, weekly and daily records for traffic. Obviously, in our fifth year, we will post record uniques, page views, reader engagement, and brand awareness.
PoetsandQuants now reaches on a regular basis more than 85% of the active MBA applicants to the world’s top 100 business schools. Our challenge now frankly is to hold on to the applicant audience once it converts to being students and then alumni.
Sameer: How big is the team (full-time employees, freelancers)? How is it internally structured (content team, marketing team, technical team)?
John: We have six-full time and one part-time employee at this point. We also employ about a dozen freelancers and contractors. Our writers are all generalists so they report and write for all four websites.
Though we have headquarters in Jack London Square in Oakland, California, we are pretty much a virtual company. Our web designer is in upstate New York. Our web developer is in Chicago. We have a reporter and our chief revenue officer in New York, a reporter in Iowa, and we’ve hired freelancers all over the world, from London to Philadelphia.
Sameer: How does the process of writing articles work at P&Q? How is it different from regular business journalism?
John: Most of our story ideas are internally generated by the staff and a story can be executed within hours, especially breaking news, though we’ve worked on articles for weeks at a time.
I don’t believe in the current list heavy, four-paragraph Internet story. If anything, we’ve done more magazine cover length stories than just about any digital media content provider.
I love to tackle big, serious issues and devote a full series of stories to those issues. And we’ve done that with the rise of MBA admission consultants, the challenge many international students have in surmounting H1B visa issues in the U.S., the debt burdens from student loans, the impact of technology on higher education, and more.
And I love provocative and controversial topics as evidenced by our series on the fast growth of Hult International Business School and the current scandal at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business which led to the resignation of the dean. We broke that story, it spread worldwide and we’ve followed every twist and turn of it because I consider it an extremely important story about leadership, culture, and academic politics.
Obviously, no one–including the organizations that regularly pump out MBA rankings–cover the rankings game better than us. We are in the weeds on MBA rankings, taking apart every new list and explaining the inconsistencies, flaws and silliness with which people obsess over them. When the FT or Businessweek comes out with a ranking, our coverage of it vastly exceeds what their own journalists will ever write or would be allowed to write about them.
We’ve also established what I would call franchise areas of coverage on the beat. Every year, we name a Dean of the Year in a magazine cover length profile. Every year we do a major takeout of a dozen or more stories on the most successful MBA Startups of the Year. We name the best 40 business school professors under 40. And we just started doing a vast array of pieces on the best and brightest MBA graduates as well as the most representative students in incoming classes.
Sameer: Over the last decade, what are the big developments that have impacted the industry?
John: The big story is how technology is resetting the boundaries of business school competition. Before online education, it was possible for a local or regional business school to put a stake in the ground and serve most of the business educational needs of a local or regional community.
Now those schools, with smaller budgets, staffs and brand equity, are under attack by national and global branded programs who can compete with them by using technology. That is a very big development and we haven’t yet seen the full disruptive impact of it.
But many programs will cease to exist and a good number of business schools will go out of business as a result. The rise of MOOC courses and the fact that Wharton decided to be a leading player in MOOCs raises all kinds of questions about whether taking a portfolio of free online courses could someday have the same professional benefits as an actual degree.
We were the first to write the story on how someone could now string together an entire MBA curriculum of free courses from only elite business schools and claim to have the equivalent of an elite MBA degree. People are actually doing that. It won’t get you a job at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, or Google, but those credentials are being recognized by many companies and that is a threat to traditional higher education.
Globalization and entrepreneurship are two other big developments. Business schools have been late to the globalization party, pulled there largely by the corporations which had to become global first. But just about all top schools now have a remarkably diverse mix of faculty and students from all over the world, exposure to many international cases in classes, and consulting projects that force students to learn how to get things done in multiple cultures and countries.
The explosion in interest in entrepreneurship is more than just a Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg phenomenon. For the first time ever, MBAs are using business schools as incubators to launch startups and raising mountains of angel and venture capital money to do so. The money going to back many of these MBA-started ventures is mind-blowing.
And then you also have far more MBAs interested in early stage companies that don’t do on-campus recruiting. That is part of the shift caused by all the interest and hoopla over entrepreneurship.
Sameer: What are the biggest threats and opportunities it faces today?
John: It’s technology, for sure. Those local and regional players are increasingly vulnerable to big brands who come into their markets with online offerings.
And the greatest opportunity is also how to smartly use technology to bring business education to greater numbers of people in a more cost effective way, but it’s also to use technology to improve the way learning is done.
I think we’re quickly approaching the day not of the flipped classroom but the flipped curriculum where all the rote learning in an MBA program will be online and class time, such as it is, will be applied and experiential.
Sameer: What happens in an MBA class in 2 years that justifies the $100,000+ price tag?
A great two-year MBA program is a magical and transformative experience. I am a passionate believer in higher education as a way to live a fuller and more productive life, and the MBA degree is without a doubt one of a handful of the most valuable degrees ever created.
It’s true that the return on the degree has declined since the 1980s and 1990s, but today’s returns easily justify the considerable investment and sacrifice required to get the degree.
If you get into the right program, you will meet and work with the very best people in your entire life. You will learn things that will serve you well throughout your lifetime. And you will leave having an enduring network of friends, colleagues and even people you never met who will be willing to help, support and encourage you in your professional and personal endeavors.
That’s worth far more than the quarter of a million dollars people routinely pay in tuition and opportunity costs.
Sameer: With competition from MOOCs, online programs, shorter-duration options, and the intermittent questions popping up about the value of an MBA, how do you see the traditional MBA degree evolving over the next decade?
John: I think the education will be more applied than ever before. Classroom time will be reserved for more value-added discussions, debates and experiential exercises.
At the very top end of the market, let’s say the world’s best 100 schools, the traditional MBA degree will remain viable and strong.
There’s still more growth ahead, despite what a lot of naysayers think. That’s because the demand for the degree, especially from the top schools, remains strong. Most MBA programs have not experienced significant growth and that has lowered the available number of MBAs on the market.
More graduates are doing startups, going into early stage companies, launching social enterprises or taking government jobs, and more international MBAs are going back to their home countries where the upside can be considerably greater than in a developed country.
The result of all these changes in the market means that the available pool of MBA grads from the top schools is at least 20% smaller than it was 10 to 15 years ago. Yet, the appetite to hire MBAs by McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Deloitte, Accenture as well as Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others has only increased. So I wouldn’t write the obituary for the traditional MBA anytime soon.
Sameer: Do you think the original MBA ranking (which you conceptualised at Businessweek) has had ramifications beyond what you had imagined then? In what way, has it impacted the industry and its various stakeholders (business schools, test prep companies, admissions consultants)?
John: I often joke that I feel a little bit like Dr. Frankenstein. I created a monster and it still roams the earth in dangerous and destructive ways.
Rankings are a fact of life and they have changed the way schools are managed, the way applicants choose programs, the way companies recruit MBA students, the way schools hire and retain faculty, how alumni feel about their alma mater, and how much money donors give to schools. The implications are far beyond what I ever could have imagined.
But the rankings have also been one of the best things to ever happen to graduate business education. They’ve dramatically increased the attention paid to business school education and made far greater numbers of people aware of the benefits of an MBA degree than would have otherwise been possible. I don’t believe the MBA would have become the most popular graduate degree in the U.S. if rankings did not exist.
Consider this. Let’s say U.S. News decides to drop the GMAT score from the metrics it uses to rank business school. If that happened, GMAT test prep companies would go out of business, the GMAC would see its revenues fall dramatically, and school admission officials would truly live up to their false rhetoric in looking at candidates holistically. So yes the impact is huge.
What I would say, however, is that the impact of any one ranking is not what it used to be. There are so many rankings that there has been a dilution effect in how influential any one ranking is.
The late comers to the game, including The Financial Times, The Economist, and Forbes, are not nearly as important or powerful as Businessweek and U.S. News once were. That’s not to say any of them have no sway over applicants, recruiters and other stakeholders. They do. But nothing compared to what it was in the late 80s and 90s.
Sameer: What are the most common ways in which lower ranked business schools try to game the rankings to climb up the hierarchy?
John: They fudge the numbers they report to the ranking organizations, inflating GMAT scores, the number of applications received, and the selectivity of the school.
Or if a publication surveys students or graduates, the schools ask their constituents to remember that their answers on these surveys impact the reputation of the brand they now put on their resume. So students and graduates don’t fill these surveys out with the kind of honesty and candor you would expect.
Those are the two best ways to game a ranking and no ranking is immune from it. It makes little difference if there are statisticians looking over the results for suspicious patterns in the data, as Businessweek has done for years, or occasional audits of school-provided data, as The FT does.
If someone wants to game a ranking, it’s pretty easy to do so–and even easier to get away with it because the publications that crank out these lists take no responsibility for gaming and rarely call it out.
Sameer: Describe the biggest strengths and flaws of the leading MBA rankings.
John: It’s important to remember that the methodologies that determine the rankings are set by journalists who are trying to do a good job but are pretty mindless creatures. They really don’t know what goes on in a business school and their own prejudices and bias gets in the way of creating methodologies that might make the most sense to an applicant seeking a quality education.
All the rankings put far too much emphasis on compensation and job placement and far too little on the MBA experience and the business learning that goes on in a program.
The FT ranking is biased against U.S. schools so that the British newspaper can get more advertising money from European schools. It includes many metrics that have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with political correctness or simply having a way to make the schools and programs of lesser quality appear more competitive with the best U.S. programs.
The Businessweek ranking is now a chaotic mess, having had three different methodologies in the past three rankings.
U.S. News remains flawed for a number of reasons, though I like it best because of the qualitative input and output measures it uses to rank MBA programs. The two biggest flaws are its surveys of corporate recruiters and deans. They are both badly designed and yield results that are not authentic.
The Economist ranking is a joke and an embarrassment to a great media brand that publishes one of the best magazines in the world.
And Forbes is all about the money and that’s just too narrow a way to look at the value of an MBA education.
Sameer: Which of these rankings should an international applicant use and how?
John: Obviously, this is going to come out self-serving on my part but I honestly believe we came up with an invaluable way to rank the schools.
We take the five most influential rankings — U.S. News, Businessweek, Forbes, the FT and The Economist — and then mash them together using weights that I believe reflect the value of each ranking.
Here’s what happens when you do that.
First, you diminish the inevitable anomalies that occur in every ranking where a school or program gets the benefit or the disadvantage of some statistical quirk that has nothing to do with the quality of the education. That is a big and very important part of what we do.
Secondly, you come to a greater level of truth because if a school is ranked in the top ten by three of the four rankings, you can confidently feel that it is in the top ten. Despite the different methodologies, consensus here is something that is very valuable.
And finally, in one simple place, an applicant can see how a school ranks across the most influential lists.
The funny thing about this is that you will never read about The Economist ranking in the FT, and you will never read about the Businessweek ranking in U.S. News. So they are siloed and sheltered from each other and their readers.
Yet, you can’t look at any ranking and make sense of it in isolation. You need the context and perspective of how a school performs across several third-party analysis, no matter how flawed or intellectually dishonest any one of them is.
The other part of bringing these rankings together is how that all adds up from the perspective of someone who knows more about business school rankings than anyone else on the planet. I know that is a dubious distinction and even a curse, but it is true. I know what goes on behind the curtain of these rankings because I’ve been there for many years. So I inherently know what the big challenges are in gathering this data and putting it together.
Sameer: What are the signs that applicants should watch out for while analysing individual business schools in the rankings?
John: The biggest thing to consider is this: When you go to school’s website, it will inevitable contain a page or two on the rankings it has received by numerous publications. You could easily conclude that those rankings are impressive and the school is solid.
The truth is there is now a ranking for everything and every school can look good on some measure. What’s important is not a school’s ranking but how that ranking compares with other schools in the same peer group. It’s the contrast and perspective that an applicant should watch out for–not the actual number attached to a given program or school.
Sameer: Rotman’s recent survey shows no correlation between GMAT scores and career success. Do other business schools share this view? Why aren’t they speaking out or doing anything about it by tweaking their selection procedure?
John: I need to take something of a bow for that story because that was another one that we broke. I can tell you that GMAC was none too happy about it.
The vast majority of admissions officers believe that too much emphasis is placed on GMAT scores, but U.S. News is imposing a great deal of pressure on them to make sure their GMATs are as high as they can be so they will rise in the rankings.
Schools would more holistically view applicants if not for it. Wherever I go, I hear admissions people complain about this, usually off the record.
Change here is hard because of the rankings and the general, misinformed perspective that a higher average GMAT score means their students have greater intellectual prowess. It only means a school has admitted good test takers.
The fact is, a 600 or so on the test should provide 90%+ confidence that the person can easily do the core curriculum and that is all the GMAT is meant to measure–and the correlation with that objective is not as strong as many people think.
Only a few days ago, I visited a U.S. campus and the admissions director told me about a 480 GMAT student they took in on a gamble. He had a great track record of success and was outstanding in every other area except the GMAT. When they brought this guy into their MBA program, they even lightened his course load in the first term, pushing one core course back to help him. He didn’t need it. He became the most widely admired student in his class by colleagues and by faculty, a leader at the school in every possible way. And he was a gamble because of a 480, well below the school’s average GMAT score.
Sameer: Apart from the minor changes (e.g. the number of essays), is it time business schools started holistically re-evaluating and re-designing their selection processes?
John: I think this is evolving with the introduction of web-based interviewing tools. More schools are putting greater emphasis on interviews because they know you can study and get a higher GMAT score or hire an admissions consultant to craft a smarter well-written essay.
The single biggest problem is the value place on the GMAT which kills more applicants than any other facet of the application process.
Sameer: You mentioned in another interview about the need to test EQ? Apart from an interview (which has its own limitations), how else can a business schools test that?
John: There are EQ tests out there and perhaps it would make sense to have a timed, online test that schools can ask applicants to complete, in the same way that they now do spontaneous video essays.
It would make sense because companies still say that business schools can improve in the area of soft skills which is something they have been saying forever.
Obviously, applicants who are articulate, show higher interpersonal skills, and have immediate professional presence are going to be easier to place at graduation and all the research shows that they tend to be the most successful MBA graduates–not the ones who just have high GMAT scores.
Sameer: What else can they do to make it more relevant?
John: They can take a stand against the GMAT and discount its value and relevance in admissions. That is hard to do because of the rankings game.
Sameer: You’ve written about work-permits being the big hurdle for international students. Business schools have been vocal about this issue too. The highly-skilled immigrant workforce plays a key role in the US economy. Does it make business sense for the U.S. to attract & train the best brains from across the world and lose them due to visa restrictions?
John: It makes no sense at all and I’m sick about it. What has made the U.S. such a powerful economic force in the world is immigration.
To invest in the education of smart, ambitious people and then show them the door makes no sense at all.
I’m hopeful that government policy is this area will change or at the very least the abuses of the H1B visa system result in major changes to that visa program so that the best and brightest international graduates are welcomed here with open and encouraging arms.
Right now, as you know, it’s a game rigged in favor of outsourcing companies.
Sameer: Do you see anything changing in the next few years to stop the confidence of international students from eroding?
John: I don’t know how eroded the confidence is. Yes, it’s discouraging in the U.S. but many students find a way around it.
There are companies and industries willing to jump through all the immigration hurdles to recruit and hire international students. A little reform in the process can go a long way.
And then you have the pro-immigration countries such as Canada and Australia where you can get an MBA at less cost and be completely confident that you can work in those countries once you graduate. There are many very good MBA programs in Canada and that’s another very viable option for people.
Sameer: Apart from consulting and technology, which other industries are good bets for international students who want to work in the U.S.?
John: Finance, for sure, because of the increasing reliance on data analysis which is impacting every industry. But the entire startup culture which has an influence on every industry here is a solid place to go.
A small enterprise won’t be able to pull strings or hire lawyers to make immigration easier, but if you can prove your worth to a startup or early stage company, they will support your campaign to get a visa and many will take a bet on you without knowing what the outcome could be.
Sameer: What innovative steps are the elite universities (or even those ranked lower) taking to ensure that their students get placed?
John: Career management at business schools has become a science and an art, especially in the U.S. At most top schools, significant resources are devoted to professional development. It’s one of the major reasons business schools and the MBA have been so successful.
The most innovative stuff going on today has to do with outreach before a student even touches campus, one-on-one career coaching and assessment, mentoring programs, and informational seminars on the industries, companies and jobs for MBAs.
I am continually amazed at the innovation occurring in this part of the business school experience. If you take this seriously from day one, I don’t believe you will graduate from a top program with a disappointing outcome.
Sameer: Thanks a ton for your time and the insightful responses, John. I’m sure our readers will appreciate it.
John: My pleasure, Sameer.
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