Several publications rank MBA programs and, as part of the ranking, ask MBA students to respond to a student satisfaction survey. Students are frequently urged not to air their grievances in the survey, because it hurts the school ranking and therefore the value of their degree. The question: is it ethical to provide rose-tinted responses to the survey to boost the ranking?

Contributed by an MBA student.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

8 responses »

  1. CP says:

    That MBA survey response is not generalizable. If everyone lies, responder wouldn’t be able to get that ranking advantage (If this is the purpose). So he/she won’t achieve his/her original goal. This action & purpose cant be generalized.

    But….here’s another perspective.
    The reality is almost every responder knows the impact of this survey. So now the question is..is the purpose of providing a “rose-tinted” respond is to gain advantage or to simply to keep up because everybody is already providing “bad” data?
    From the perspective of “keeping up”, this action would be generalizable.
    Utility test: pass, because then the data will be evenly contaminated. No school will be at a disadvantage. And maybe the race becomes how good can you be “representing” your school.

  2. Amran says:

    I sent an email to all of my classmates to encourage them to speak favorably about the school even if they didn’t want to. I agree that it is not generalizable and is akin to cheating on an exam. If every student at every MBA program did the same thing, every school would achieve a perfect score and the purpose of increasing relative rank would not be achieved.

    Despite this, the political realities of the situation offer no benefit by not partaking. If we assume that the majority of schools are unethical, or savvy, and encourage their students to rank the school highly, and we decide not to, we are only hurting ourselves. In this case, doing the ethical thing offers only detriment. How are we supposed to reconcile the fact that acting ethically helps others and hurts us?

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree that providing “rose-tinted” responses is likely not generalizable. However, as Professor Hooker says above, the action is generalizable when we’re certain that this is a common practice at B-Schools. The problem inherent in the survey is that every student will be penalized for being truthful, if the truth is that the program is lacking in some satisfaction area. A low score (and hence a rankings drop) won’t mean that all of the sudden the administration will know that the facilities need to be updated, or that certain professors aren’t top notch, and that the issues will be resolved. What it will mean is that lower caliber students go to the school, fewer alumni donations will be received, and the best faculty will move to “better” programs. In fact, what will happen is the exact opposite of the intended consequences of someone who wants to air their grievances. The Economist should know better than to use this information (and extreme conflict of interest) for any serious rankings adjustment, and I don’t believe that we know for absolute certain the extent to which its really taken into account. To me this is like polling GM on how fun to drive (a subjective characteristic akin to satisfaction) their cars are. Is it unethical for GM to say that they’re extremely fun, even better than BMW and Mercedes? No one will believe them, and for good reason. There is plenty of good information available on GMAT scores, job offers, professor research, student to faculty ratio, student work experience, and employer feedback that is actually useful in determining the “quality” of a business school. Surveying “satisfaction” is too subjective, a major conflict of interest, and something that should be gathered by a prospective student or employer from talking with current students and alumni.

  4. MA says:

    I think providing rose tinted answers to boost school performance in rankings is not ethical because it is not generalizable. It definitely undermines the value of the ranking system and provides false information to prospective students. If everyone did the same thing students and employers would look for other ways to evaluate business schools. Students at other schools may be very conscious about their school’s reputation and do unethical things to improve it but other people’s unethical actions do not justify hiding important facts. Systematically encouraging students to lie/hide information about the school could also lead to very unrealistic and obviously biased survey results. That would raise questions about the ethics of the whole community. Accuracy of the responses is also very important from a utilitarian point of view because individuals coming to school with a distorted view of the school would be very unhappy and the school experience would be worse for everyone including staff and faculty. Another important point is that these surveys and rankings help prospective students assess their fit with the schools. The responses to those surveys are not only used in rankings but some additional comments are published so that people are better informed about some facts.

    • Joe says:

      I’d echo this sentiment. Encouraging students to distort their responses in a certain manner appears to me to fail the generalization test. Furthermore, I think this actually is an interesting real-world example of the consequences of this test failing. If we assume that … every business school encourages a similar practice, then the entire rating process devolves into propaganda. This is – at the very least – misleading to the consumers of the information (a group of which we were likely recently a part). If the purpose of these ratings is to help students to get a feel for life at the school, this practice seems to deliberately subvert that goal.

      Coupling this with the fact that the survey is a voluntary response poll (and therefore potentially susceptible to response bias) makes it even more unlikely that the results are consistent with the “reality” of the MBA programs. I’d imagine that a random sample of students selected to complete the survey (and compensated for their time) would be more representative.

  5. John Hooker says:

    The concern here is that if others are gaming the system with positive responses, then an honest response will penalize the school. But if others are really gaming the system, then doing the same is generalizable.

    We can’t simply assume, however, that “everybody is doing it.” We have to check it out. I think a more realistic scenario is that others avoid using the survey as a forum to air their personal grievances with their school. Students everywhere have routine complaints of some kind, and and omitting them from a survey doesn’t undermine its purpose. However, if a school has unusual problems that readers would expect someone to mention, they should be reported.

    • Rupesh says:

      In response to Professor Hooker, is not partaking in the survey to voice complaints (“avoid using the survey as a forum to air their personal grievances”) result in the same situation as if a student gave false positive remarks?

      Applying the generalization test you have the following. If all students who had complaints did not partake in the survey then only positive results of all the schools would be present. Everyone would know that only positive responses are present in the survey and would not pay attention to the rankings when they came out; defeating the purpose of the survey and rankings in the first place; non generalizable.

      In reality, as Amran has pointed out, there is no benefit of not completing the survey and stating the positive aspects of your program. You have schools that think the same way and face the same dilemma. Sadly game theory ends up being used instead of ethics, and it seems that if you don’t do the same, you are only hurting your fellow students and alumni in the process with lower rankings.

      • John Hooker says:

        I was not suggesting that students with complaints should not participate in the survey. Rather, they should respond but can omit complaints one would expect others to omit. The survey results are meaningful if respondents mention unusual problems (or virtues) that others would expect them to mention.

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