How We Rank Online MBA Programs

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Our ranking methodology for MBA programs employs an integrated evaluation of four main criteria: academics, affordability, reputation, and program availability. Each of these factors covers specific program characteristics, as detailed in the sections below. The methodology is unique to this site and specially configured to meet our readers’ informational needs.

The four main criteria combine to create an accurate, comprehensive assessment of a program’s value as measured by potential returns on students’ educational investments. Schools cannot pay for favorable evaluations, higher rankings, or inclusion in the final ranked list. Our site maintains partnerships with advertisers, but as with schools, advertisers have no ability to influence our rankings.

In generating the rankings, our experts perform detailed statistical analyses of data published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES is a subdivision of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), which is part of the federal Department of Education (ED). Its mandate covers the collection, study, and publication of statistics related to education and educational institutions.

This page also discusses how our evaluators weight the various factors and subfactors contributing to school scores. We provide this detailed breakdown of our methodology in the interests of full transparency, so you can be sure the program ranking information you read is accurate and objective.

About the Data We Use

The NCES operates under the IES banner. According to its website, the IES acts as a nonpartisan and independent but ED-affiliated statistical analysis agency. Its primary focus covers six main activities:

  • Analyzing statistical information related to the educational value students extract from U.S. schools
  • Survey-based insights into where the U.S. educational system succeeds and fails and how to improve the system
  • Developmental funding and testing of novel educational strategies for improving learning outcomes
  • Comprehensive assessments of federal education-related programs and government policies
  • Resources that enhance the visibility and accessibility of data that states and other stakeholders use to guide their policy decisions
  • Training and development programs that improve the quality and completeness of research and data collection practices

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is one of the NCES’s key assets. IPEDS maintains a database of statistical information generated by triannual institutional surveys. All postsecondary schools, including colleges, universities, technical schools, and vocational schools, must participate in IPEDS surveys to qualify for funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

Using NCES/IPEDS data optimizes the neutrality and integrity of the raw statistics we use in our ranking methodology for MBA programs. Before including a school in a ranking, our internal quality assurance team audits all institutional scores and performance indicators. If a school appears to merit inclusion but does not have enough available data, the school does not appear on our final list.

In general, we update rankings once each year. Some lists receive less frequent or more frequent updates, depending on the availability of new data and statistics. Our major rankings are being thoroughly updated for 2021, and we never rebrand old rankings for a new year.

As of Nov. 3, 2020, IPEDS has released only a portion of its updated school data for 2020. Our rankings on this site use the most current data available at the time of publication.

A Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology

Rankings only carry as much value as the methodology that generated them, which is why we chose a balanced set of weighted elements that measure qualitative and quantitative factors. These weights vary depending on the specific focus of a given ranked list. For example, our coverage of affordable MBA programs assigns more importance to tuition and the cost of attendance than our general MBA rankings.

The following pie charts offer a visual representation of our weighting system:

About Our Ranking Factors

Our ranking methodology for MBA programs goes deeper than the four general factor categories explained in the charts above. It also analyzes multiple subfactors, each of which contributes to the accuracy and completeness of each general category. These subfactors are also weighted within their general categories to ensure fair and proportional representation in the final list.

  • Subfactors for Academics

    • Retention Rate: This metric describes the year-over-year percentage of students who return to the institution or program or who complete their studies. For example, the retention rate for a two-year MBA program would count the proportion of students enrolled in the first year who returned for the second year, and the percentage of second-year students who graduated. Our rankings use full-time retention rates from 2018, the most recent year for which IPEDS data is available.
    • Graduation Rate: Forming a critical part of the Student Right-to-Know Act, an institutional or programmatic graduation rate counts the percentage of students who complete the program and earn its associated academic credential (in this case, an MBA). To be counted, a student must complete the program within 150% of the standard timeframe. Again, our rankings use 2018 graduation rate data published by IPEDS.
    • Robust Faculty: This metric accounts for two subfactors: the proportion of institutional or departmental faculty who hold full-time positions, and the school or program’s overall student-to-faculty ratio. The full-time faculty metric excludes adjunct and part-time instructors, while the student-to-faculty ratio counts the average number of learners enrolled in a school or program for each faculty member. In both respects, our rankings draw on IPEDS data from 2018.

  • Subfactors for Affordability

    • Price for Students With Grants or Scholarships: Our cost analysis for students receiving financial aid covers the average net price for attendees who were awarded grants or scholarships in the 2017-18 academic year. This metric compares the cost of attendance for students receiving those forms of aid against the standard tuition rates paid by students receiving other forms of aid or no aid at all.
    • Students Getting Financial Aid: Here, our analysis focuses on the percentage of students receiving financial aid along with the typical value of that aid. Specifically, it covers the institutional percentage of full-time, first-time undergraduates awarded any form of aid in the 2017-18 academic year, and the average amount of grant and scholarship aid awarded per student during the same timeframe. Both factors strongly and directly impact a school or program’s actual cost of attendance.
    • Students Getting Federal Aid: Federal student loan programs include direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, PLUS loans, and direct PLUS loans for parents. In evaluating this data point, we consider the institution-wide percentage of undergraduate students who received funding from a federal loan program for 2017-18. Our analysts also factor in the average financial value of that funding, with higher average loan amounts scoring more points.
    • Post-Graduation Student Debt: Students who graduate with less debt tend to receive superior long-term returns on their educational investments. As such, our analysts look at both the average amount of debt students carry when they graduate from a given institution and the student loan default rates associated with the school. We analyze IPEDS average loan default rates from 2016, along with data from 2018 on median debt levels for students who completed their programs within six years of enrolling.

  • Subfactors for Reputation

    • Percent of Applicants Admitted: Selective schools tend to enjoy a better reputation among employers, as demanding admission standards imply that a program admits only the most qualified and capable applicants. Our analysts use IPEDS admission rate data from 2018, which expresses the percentage of program applicants who received an offer of admission. Lower percentages suggest greater selectivity, which in turn correlates with external perceptions of high program quality.
    • Admissions Yield: The admissions yield compares the number of students who actually enrolled in a given school or program against the number of applicants who were offered admission. For instance, if an MBA program sent out 50 offers of admission and 47 students enrolled, the program would have a 94% admissions yield. Our analysts look at the yield-based enrollment rate indicated in IPEDS data from 2018.
    • Return on Investment: Calculating returns on investment is an inexact science, as many subjective and qualitative aspects enhance the purely quantitative outcomes of an educational path. For MBA programs, our number-crunchers examine the average annual earnings of employed students six years after program entry. The most recent available IPEDS data for this metric dates to 2018.

  • Subfactors for Program Availability and Online Flexibility

    • Percent of Online Students Enrolled: Fully online and hybrid programs improve availability and accessibility by freeing learners from the need to convene on a physical campus. Our team considers this subfactor only in rankings specific to online programs. We evaluate both the institutional percentage of master’s students in online courses and the overall institutional percentage of students enrolled in online courses.
    • Percent of Relevant Degree Level Offered: This metric focuses on degree levels, and analyzes the percentage of programs offered institution-wide at the level covered by the ranking. For MBA programs, analysts compare the number of master’s programs at the school against the total number of degree programs the school hosts at all levels. The overall total includes associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs.

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