From a purely academic tool, to a mass-media opinion-making machine. The MBA rankings have changed dramatically since 1977, when they were first introduced. In the beginning it was the Carter Report, whose criteria were limited to faculty publications in academic journals. The Ladd & Lipset Survey, started in the same year, examined how faculties ranked schools, and deans voted for the best programmes in the MBA Magazine (now defunct). But it wasn’t until 1988, when Business Week published its first ranking that the whole game of assessing, criticising, and wooing between business schools and big media really began.

Just like ROI, rankings are a helpful tool if utilised properly, as they contain a lot of valuable information for applicants. But being critical is useful in this case. The drawbacks of rankings are inherent in their huge influence, as they tend to overshadow more important factors. Such as, for example, whether a school is really suitable for a candidate, whether it fits his/her career goals, and whether it is recognised by the applicant’s preferred industry. Rankings also contribute to the culture of shallow evaluation of business schools. They cannot give all the answers, no matter how exhaustive and detailed they seem to be.

Pay after graduation

To demonstrate some of the benefits of rankings, we will review one of the most interesting aspects for prospective students – the change of salary after graduation. For this purpose, we shall rely on the Financial Times’ data. It is no surprise that schools from the developing world are leaders when it comes to biggest percentage increase. For the last two years, Shanghai Jiao Tong University Antai has been the champion. In 2015 its disciples saw a 160% boost in their income compared to their pre-MBA days, to USD 93,690; and in 2014 the rise was 166% to USD 84,890. Chinese schools dominate, and in 2013 all the top five positions were from this country. China preserved its first four places in 2014, with the fifth taken by the National University of Singapore Business School. In 2015 the first placed Shanghai Jiao Tong University Antai is followed by the Chinese Fudan University School of Management and CEIBS. In fourth and fifth positions are the Indian School of Business and the National University of Singapore Business School respectively.

The way the rankings are determined depends on the schools providing good education at reasonable prices and on graduates receiving attractive salaries. Asia, mainly due to the lower income level of countries such as China, also provides a greater difference in salaries prior and post MBA. This rule is valid for the booming developing countries as a whole and explains the high pay percentage boost we observe. But this is also proof that the industry acknowledges the quality of the good business schools and pays their alumni well. Undoubtedly, the influx of investment in Asia in the last two decades has made it a vibrant place for studying an MBA. However, there are some geographical specifics one should be aware of. For example, the top Chinese business schools may be relatively internationalised, but the same cannot be said about the situation in the job market in mainland China.

Read: 2017 Best US Business Schools Rankings

In contrast, Singapore offers more career opportunities for expatriates, especially considering the scope of the job market. If we look further down this ranking, the last two places are taken by the University of St Gallen (Switzerland) and the University of Bath School of Management (UK). The first’s mean salary is USD 104,891 and reports a 58% increase in pay, and the second has a salary of USD 96,846 which represents a 55% increase. These are still very decent numbers and they demonstrate that one shouldn’t be mesmerised by the huge percentage boost in Asia. If we really want to learn about who gets the highest pay, we have to go west.

According to the 2015 figures for weighted salary, the highest paid alumni three years after graduation were those of the “usual suspects”. Disciples of Harvard received almost USD 180,000, followed closely by the graduates of Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia. Logically, this list is more sustainable than that for the salary percentage increase. 2014’s top 5 had the same participants except that Stanford was the leader, Harvard was second and Kellogg was fifth. Stanford also took the first position in 2013, with an average salary of close to USD 195,000; Harvard in second again, and the rest of the positions the same as in 2015.

At the bottom of the ranking for weighted salary are Fudan University School of Management (China) with about USD 91,000 and McGill University Desautels (Canada) with close to USD 90,000. Paradoxically, Fudan was also second in the world for percentage salary increase, with an astounding 148% – a great illustration of the combination of impressive development and imbalance so typical for China.

Good old Europe lags behind America significantly in terms of weighted salary three years after graduation. The highest salary (approximately USD 155,000) went to the disciples of INSEAD which ranked 10th, followed by London Business School (about USD 154,000) at 12th place, IE Business School at 14th place, IMD at 16th, and Cambridge Judge Business School at 18th place with USD 147,000. One of the reasons for this balance of power is that Americans simply pay more to MBAs. The better handling of financial and economic problems in the US does not weigh here so much.

And should the trend in the currency markets for a weak euro and strong dollar prove sustainable, this distinction could deepen even further. However, applicants must take into account that generally ROI in Europe should be higher than in America, mainly because the degree is shorter. The Old Continent’s other big advantages are that the MBA is more internationalised and that there are better chances to realise ROI in the job market.

Read: Discover the European MBA

Rankings methodology

The rankings of the Financial Times, Forbes magazine, The Economist, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, and US News & World Report have gained global recognition over the years. However reputable they are, it would be wise to look not solely at them, but also at the methodology they are based on to understand if they fit with your own preferences.

Forbes magazine’s biennial ranking only takes into account the return of investment in the five years after graduation. The Financial Times’ formula includes the weighted salary of MBA graduates (20%), salary increase in the last three years (another 20%), and number of articles of faculty members in academic journals (10%), international mobility (6%), doctoral rank (5%), and faculty with doctorates (5%). Business Week’s methodology relies mainly on the opinion poll of students and corporate recruiters – 45% each. The remaining 10% is taken up by a scholarly criterion – publications in academic journals.

ACCESS MBA Guide traditionally recommends that applicants put more weight on accreditations than on rankings when deciding where to apply. We believe that they more adequately reflect the quality of education, as the rankings may be compiled from incomplete facts and figures.

The main accreditation bodies – EQUIS, managed by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD); the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB); and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) – certify institutions only after a careful review of their academic standards. When a school receives an accreditation, it has an obligation to preserve the criteria it was accredited for. This is more relevant proof of merit than a place in top 20 that may simply not apply next year.