John Byrne, the editor in chief of business school news site Poets & Quants, has the distinction of creating the first business school ranking back in 1988 for Businessweek.
Business school rankings have since become a cottage industry for business news media, with lists being pumped out on a regular basis by Forbes, U.S. News, The Financial Times and The Economist, not to mention others.
On Monday, for the first time since he created the rankings at Businessweek, Byrne created and published a new in-house, proprietary ranking of undergraduate business programs.
The only competitor in this area would be U.S. News. Bloomberg Businessweek abandoned its undergrad biz ranking this year.
Poets & Quants is now up to 10 full-time employees, all with full health and other benefits, and the company is a multi-million-dollar, full-service digital media company with five websites, five conferences, digital magazines, digital weekly newsletters, a weekly podcast, and video.
It’s taking yet another big step in the development of its business on Jan. 1 when it moves all sales inside the company. Until then, educational sales have been handled by an outside agency.
Byrne is one of the few “old media” journalists to start a business in the digital age without funding of any kind and without having to give up a percentage of ownership of his company to anyone.
Byrne spoke by email with Talking Biz News about the evolution of his company. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why did you decide to create your own rankings for undergrad biz programs?
Interestingly enough, it all goes back to Businessweek. When I returned to BW as executive editor in 2005 after a stint with Fast Company magazine, I brought together the business school team and asked them to create a ranking for undergraduate business programs. This was a far larger market than the MBA field. It was the most popular undergraduate major then and now, with one in five undergrad students specializing in business.
Though high school students were not Businessweek readers, their parents certainly were and mom and dad were increasingly getting involved in college decisions mainly because they bankrolled them. So Businessweek started ranking undergrad programs. T
This year, Bloomberg Businessweek decided to discontinue the undergraduate ranking, but not before releasing a final ranking with a new methodology that had many school administrators disappointed and angry. The ranking largely focused on employment outcomes, with little to no examination of the academic experience or the quality of incoming students. A couple of undergraduate deans contacted me and asked us to do a new ranking. I immediately thought it was a great idea. The only competitor is U.S. News and they are doing a bad job of it.
How does your ranking differ from the US News & World Report rankings?
U.S. News solely ranks on the basis of an annual survey of deans and senior faculty members. The ranking is more of a popularity contest than it is a meaningful measure of the quality of a school or undergraduate program. It’s a sideshow to U.S. News’ overall college and university rankings. They collect no data specific to undergraduate business programs, and the results are laughable.
First off, deans and senior faculty members hardly know what goes on in their own schools. They certainly aren’t in a position to assess the quality of a large number of other programs. Secondly, the deans and senior faculty are generally known to default to U.S. News’ own list, reinforcing little more than antiquated perceptions of their rivals.
We essentially believe there are three critical components of an undergraduate experience, none of which can be accurately assessed by deans from other schools. The three follow a natural educational chronology: You have admissions standards that determine the quality of the incoming raw talent. We are measuring that by average SAT scores for the incoming class, the acceptance rate for the program, and the percentage of incoming students who were in the top 10% of their high school class.
Then, you have the overall quality of the academic and student experience. We get a sense of that from a survey to alumni who have been in the work world for two years and are now in a good place to determine whether they education they received was solid prep for the world of work. Among 12 core questions, we ask about the quality of teaching, academic and career advising, the accessibility of professors outside of class, whether they believe the cost of their education was worth it and whether they would recommend the program to a close friend.
Finally, you have the employment outcomes. The metrics we use here are commonplace: Did students have an internship prior to their senior year? What percentage of the class is employed three months after graduation? And what is the average salary and bonus for the latest class?
We then roll up the results of these three areas for our ranking. It’s clean and simple. It’s highly credible. And we’re not counting things that really have nothing to do with the quality of a program.
Why is coverage of business schools such an important area?
It’s important for a host of reasons. Let’s just talk numbers. As I noted before, more students major in business than any other subject. In the 2013-2014 academic year, more than 358,000 students graduated from U.S. colleges with a major in business. That’s more than three times the number of education majors or those who major in biological and biomedical sciences. It’s almost twice as many as major in all the health professions and related programs. At the graduate level, the MBA is the most popular graduate degree and the most successful higher education product of the post-war period.
The students who pursue this field of study are smart, ambitious and directed. They are the next generation of business movers and shakers, CEOs and entrepreneurs. The business community is heavily involved in what business schools do, from using their students on serious consulting projects to recruiting new talent for important positions. When I started the Businessweek MBA ranking in 1988, I sold it on the basis that we were performing an important service to the next generation of our readers. That was always a strategic goal fro the very beginning.
How have you been able to grow your coverage in the past six years?
We started in August of 2010 with one website, PoetsandQuants.com, to cover the full-time MBA market. We now have five websites, digital magazines, a conference business, a weekly podcast, a steady stream of videos, even a print book business. On just Poets&Quants, we’ve had nearly 80 million page views from every country in the world, even the Vatican. In every single year, we have hit new traffic records and 2016 will establish yet another record year.
There are a few reasons for the growth. First off, the quality and the quantity of our business school coverage. We have the largest staff of journalists covering this beat in the world: five full-time, one part-time and another dozen contributors, columnists, and freelancers.
We average 15 stories a week on Poets&Quants alone, three every week day. Because we live and breathe this area of coverage, our stories typically have more context and perspective, they’re well reported, and they are far more detailed than what anyone else is running. We break news on a regular basis and we’ve done a fair amount of investigative reporting on everything from the impact of visa restrictions on international students to the sex and leadership scandal at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business which led to the resignation of its dean.
There’s also no doubt that Bloomberg Businessweek has just done a bad job of managing this area. When they let go of the core business school team in Lou Lavelle and Geoff Gloeckler in 2013, they tossed away a lot of know-how and experience. And then the magazine also lost Alison Damast who quit following a maternity leave. All together, Businessweek lost more than 24 years of reporting experience on this beat alone.
We immediately hired Alison on a part-time basis to cover undergraduate business education, and I tried hard to hire Lou, but he wanted to do other things. The loss of those three journalists was one of the dumbest decisions made by the editors.
Believe it or not, this was the only area of coverage for the magazine where there was any community at all on the online site. The page views for Businessweek’s business school coverage averaged something like 58 pages per monthly unique at a time when the overall numbers were only 1.8 pvs per unique. More important than the traffic was the fact that this is a demographic essential to the magazine’s future. It was the youngest, most ambitious and upwardly mobile portion of the magazine’s audience. The editors just threw it away, not knowing what they were doing.
One of the magazine’s challenges over the years was the older age of its audience, averaging in the early 50s. That’s not a very sexy demo for a magazine trying to attract major advertisers. Today, other than the MBA rankings, Businessweek does no meaningful coverage of graduate business education. You can hardly find it on what’s left of the Businessweek website. And even when Businessweek does a ranking as it did last month, the coverage of its own effort is miniscule. All that opened the door to Poets&Quants. We had a huge spike in traffic in 2014 and I attribute a good portion of it to Businessweek dropping the ball.
Why bring your sales force inside the company?
On Jan. 1, for the first time, we are doing all our sales in-house. From the start, we had contracted with an outside agency, Higher Edge Marketing which is now part of the Princeton Review. They have done an exceptional job in growing our business. They know the educational market extremely well. I hired one of their top sales guys, Sat Sharma, over a year ago when he left them. In the past year, he helped us get our conference business off the ground and also sold two search-engine directory products that help readers with admission consultants and specialized master’s degrees in business.
With Sat in house and our agreement with Higher Edge coming to an end, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to take this on ourselves. We are now up to 10 full-time employees as a result in a multi-million-dollar business. With all of this in-house, we think we can offer our clients some really new and innovative ways to reach their customers.
What’s been your opinion of business school coverage by the mainstream media in recent years?
The most comprehensive coverage from old media comes from The Financial Times. They do a fairly decent job covering business education, even though they were late to the game compared to Businessweek. But their long-time business editor Della Bradshaw left the paper earlier this year. That is a major blow to their coverage because Della was highly respected among business school administrators. So it’s not clear how dedicated to this area the FT is.
We have, by the way, substantially expanded our global coverage this year as a result, and 35 percent of our traffic comes from outside the U.S. The Wall Street Journal occasionally does a story or two but it’s coverage is not distinctive in any way and so infrequent it doesn’t matter all that much. U.S. News specializes in writing the dullest stories of them all. And there are a few blogs out there run by non-journalists who largely rewrite news releases.
So I would say mainstream media just doesn’t get it and hasn’t made all that much of an effort to stay on top of this.
How has your traffic grown this year?
Yes, indeed. By years end, we’ll be celebrating another record year, sixth in a row. This year we hit new records for daily, weekly and monthly traffic, even though we were competing against ourselves and the coverage of the Stanford sex and leadership scandal, which generated tremendous traffic to the site. We’re approaching 20 million page views on just the core Poets&Quants’ site.
More important than the numbers, however, is the quality of the audience. Based on the IP addresses of the readers, we’re reaching the best and brightest applicants to the best schools in the world. They are accessing the site from all the major feeder companies to the top business schools, from McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Microsoft, Apple, Google, P&G, J&J and every other major prestige employer.
Are there coverage areas that you’d like to add that you’re not covering?
My goal is to build a company that is THE brand to elite higher education in the world. So we want to launch at least two more websites, one for students in engineering and another for students who want to pursue a medical degree. It used to be that parents would want their children to become doctors or lawyers.
Now I think the primary choice for smart, young, ambition people is business, law, medicine or engineering. Increasingly, that is the ticket to the upper middle class. And today I see the graduate degree as a necessary tool to get into the middle class in the same way that an undergraduate degree was essential in the 1950s and 1960s.
How were you able to grow the business without outside funding?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to be able to fund the business from existing cash flow. I don’t see that changing, even though we have had several potential investors want to give us money. I love being the 100 percent owner and being able to make decisions without someone looking over my shoulder.
Where do you see the business in five years?
I want to grow this into a $10 million to $20 million business in five years. I think that is completely doable, if we continue to do high quality work, launch new products, and hold more conferences around the world.