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The Business School Beauty Pageant Boycott

small mortarboard resting on the pages of a partly opened hardback book

In enlightened company these days, it is not acceptable to call a woman “a 10,” even if the remark is meant as a compliment. It’s demeaning and insulting to reduce a fully formed human being to a mere number based on superficial characteristics.

Theoretically it might be even more insulting to call a woman “a four.” But I digress.

Some business school academics believe the same reasoning should apply to their institutions. They want their schools to boycott the annual ratings produced by various publications because, they say, it is misleading to prospective students to reduce their numerous, varied and undoubtedly wonderful attributes to a mere numerical score, and then to rank them against one another as though they were contestants in a beauty pageant run by some vulgar future president.

According to The Wall Street Journal, deans and faculty from more than 20 university business schools are behind the appeal. We only know a few of the schools represented; the full list of authors will be available when the forthcoming article calling for a boycott appears in the Decision Sciences Journal.

However, I will guess that the majority of the programs in question do not usually find themselves rated the equivalent of a 10.

Co-author of the research paper Elliot Bendoly, an associate dean at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, made clear that the paper’s authors do not think rankings like those published Bloomberg Businessweek actually help prospective students. “If the goal is to help inform [students] about how to make the best decision about business schools, let’s give them the raw information, and not take numbers—which may or may not be relevant to the student—and bungle them together into a ranked list,” Bendoly told the Journal.

Of course the academics are right, in a way. Nobody should pick a school on the basis of any particular publication’s ranking. This is true at every level of higher education, but especially true for a full-time, two-year graduate program whose cost, the Journal alarmingly notes, could reach as much as $200,000.

But this is exactly why any prospective student should carefully evaluate – and, I would suggest, dismiss – any institution that refuses to share the data that goes into the rankings because they don’t like the way the data is used. It is perfectly fair to infer that the would-be boycotters are more concerned about their own institutional and personal finances than those of their would-be customers. After all, anyone smart and determined enough to even consider getting an MBA ought to be easily capable of evaluating the ratings process and giving the rankings appropriately light weight.

The program where I received my own MBA, at New York University, was well-regarded when I attended in the 1980s and is even better-regarded now. I was not a full-time student; I attended in the evenings while maintaining my day job at The Associated Press. I don’t have the figures handy, but I believe my tuition for the entire program cost between $40,000 and $50,000 over three academic years. I was newly married at the time. We paid for school in cash, living (modestly) on one salary while using the other to cover the tuition.

Today the tuition and fees at NYU’s graduate business school total about $70,000 a year. That is before living expenses, and of course does not include the opportunity cost for full-time students who forgo a couple of years’ salary while in school. If my wife and I were at the same stage of our careers right now, it is unlikely that we would have been able to cover the school costs the way we did, without taking on any debt. Today’s academics expect most students to go into hock for the privilege of absorbing their wisdom, and – at least in some cases – they feel those students are not entitled to very much information about what they will receive in exchange for taking on all that debt.

There are two obvious responses for the publications that rank such programs. First, rate the schools anyway, based on information they can glean from public sources and by surveying students and others with knowledge of the program directly online. In fact, at least one unnamed media outlet did just that when Fisher attempted to abstain last year; Bendoly, who declined to name the publication, said the program was ranked on information pulled from other sources. Second, publications should list all the schools they contact that refuse to provide any information. Prospective students can draw their own conclusions.

I guess I should note that men, too, are entitled to be considered for their entire package of human attributes and deserve better than to be reduced to just a number on someone’s arbitrary and capricious rating scale. So, okay – I just said it.

Having said that, I promise, cross my heart and pinkie-swear that I will not be offended if you call me a 10. But all bets are off if you assign me a rating of four or less.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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