College Rankings – Just One Piece of the Puzzle

By Carla Patalano, DBA, SPHR
Professor and Program Chair, Master of Business Administration and Master of Human Resource Management

Annually, media outlets like The Financial Times, The Economist and U.S. News & World Report, release their rankings of higher education institutions, by program. More recently, they’ve begun to segment those rankings by modality or target audience, online vs traditional, military, etc. There’s no question that rankings provide a very accessible repository of information. But while they can provide insight into what kind of an education a prospective student can expect, they should be only one piece of the puzzle in making a determination about what the best school is for any one individual.

Take the US News ranking of Online MBA Programs, as an example. US News does a relatively good job of providing transparency around their methodology and an overview of how the rankings are calculated. Many factors they’ve selected as harbingers of a high-quality online MBA education seem, on the surface, obvious choices. Average undergraduate GPA is one example. It forms much of the basis of the “admissions selectivity” category, which accounts for a full 25 percent of the overall score used in the US News Online MBA Program ranking. The rationale is that the higher the average undergraduate GPA, the better the quality of the incoming student. The better the quality of the incoming student, the more that students will learn (from one another) and the more rigorous the material that can be taught. Seems straight forward, right? Like most things today, the answer is “it depends.”

Assume you are a 37 year old Sr. Credit Analyst in a large bank who has come to the realization that a graduate degree is needed to move to the VP level and beyond. You want to attend classes with others, like you, who have real-world experience and can bring that to the classroom. Your undergraduate GPA is a 2.4. Maybe you were in the thrall of your first real love and spent more time mooning over one another than attending class. What did you learn about yourself from that experience and your subsequent experiences over the last 15 years? A lot, I’d bet. This can (and should) be explained in your application letter or essay. Whatever the situation, you’ll want a school to consider who you have become, not who you were 15 years ago, in making a determination on your application. Thankfully, schools that focus on adult learners like you don’t typically weigh undergraduate GPA as heavily (or in some cases at all) in their admissions decisions. Those same schools, however, are likely to score lower on the admissions selectivity criteria used in ranking.

As an adult learner considering an online MBA education, you probably have a family and home that are important to you, in addition to a demanding job. Perhaps you travel for work or are heavily involved in your church or community. Studying online requires diverse online learning technologies, pedagogically-sound instructional design and reliable online support. All of these combine to allow for greater flexibility. Having the ability 24/7 to contact a reference librarian or get tutoring is going to be more important to your ongoing success in your studies than what the GPA score is of your fellow classmates. Yet the US News Online MBA Program ranking weighs technology and support at only 11 percent of the overall score, compared to 25 percent for admissions selectivity.

There are many other examples that could illustrate the same disconnects between determinations of ‘quality’. For example, college reputation is much more important to a fresh-from-undergrad MBA student who has nothing else to base their resume on, than it is to an individual with progressive work experience. So, before you read too much into a ranking or score, do your homework. Take the time to find out what exactly the criterion are, and evaluate for yourself the degree of importance that should be placed on each one (if any).

From there, take the time to talk with people who are like you (or whom you aspire to be) about their experience at the school. Speaking with current students or recent alumni, you will learn about the quality of the instruction, the level of faculty support, the ease of use of technology, the degree to which they support the adult learner and the overall experience. One way to do this is to ask Admissions to connect you with a current student or alumni. Better yet, with social media sites like LinkedIn, you literally have at your fingertips, the ability to identify any number of people who have attended or currently attend the same school that you are considering. Reach out to them for their advice.

By getting a full picture of the school, from a variety of sources, adult learners can pull together the critical pieces that make up the final puzzle – the decision of which school to attend.


Dr. Patalano oversees all aspects of several graduate programs, including curriculum design, faculty hiring and assessment, student admissions and program assessment. She brings well over a decade of experience in higher education with a strong focus on adult learners and online delivery methods. Her academic background is paired with executive-level management experience from a variety of industries including financial services, hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing and nonprofit. Dr. Patalano holds the professional designation of Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) as well as advanced training and certifications in mediation, executive coaching and situational leadership. She also operates her own consulting firm and has published articles in the Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship. She has also given presentations at the Massachusetts Colleges Online Conference on e-Learning, the North American Management Society Annual Meeting and the Midwest Finance Association Annual Conference and speaks at industry events for organizations such as SHRM and NEEBC.