Net Impact’s Guide To Business Schools

Students rank programs on social impact, sustainability

“When I think about it in terms of a goal, it’s really to prepare both existing students and professionals who want to go back and get a degree,” says Susan Blue. “It’s really to help them choose the program that best suits them.”

Net Impact began evaluating the best business schools for social and environmental impact in 2006—back when that kind of thing was “more of a nice-to-have,” explains Linda Gerard, the company’s vice president of brand marketing and innovation. As a nonprofit aiming to get professionals to use their careers for the betterment of the planet, its goals weren’t exactly front-and-center in the business world at the time.

But that’s changed: In July, the Financial Times reported that social enterprise outperformed the regular private sector this past year. More and more people are getting interested in the field. Even actress and model Jessica Alba has a social enterprise now, and it recently raised $70 million.

Net Impact’s newly updated 2014 ranking, dubbed Business as Unusual, recently made its debut, along with the organization’s annual guide to social impact and environmental sustainability programs. “When I think about it in terms of a goal, it’s really to prepare both existing students and professionals who want to go back and get a degree,” says Senior Content Strategist Susan Blue, who edited the guide. “It’s really to help them choose the program that best suits them.”


Part of what makes Net Impact’s guide unique is its methodology. Gerard emphasizes that the guide is student-led and student-informed; the leaders of the schools’ Net Impact chapters are responsible for surveying students and submitting relevant data. Student survey respondents rated their program’s strength on a 5-point scale in two categories: sustainability and social impact. Each program’s average rating for all students at the program is represented on a 1-to-5 scale.

The focus isn’t on assessing the overall quality of any of these schools. “This ranking is purely related to the survey question for overall ratings on environmental sustainability and social impact, and does not constitute a more holistic evaluation of the program, or Net Impact’s opinion on these programs,” according to the guide.

Going beyond evaluation, Net Impact began formally ranking schools on the basis of social impact and environmental sustainability in 2013. This year, the top social impact program and the top environmental sustainability program are both relatively unknown: The former is Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, and the latter is the University of California-Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Still, there are bigger players in each list’s top five. In social impact, the Yale School of Management was No. 2, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business snagged the third spot, and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business made No. 5. In environmental sustainability, No. 4 is (again) the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and No. 5 is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.


How stable have the rankings been? Not very. Year-over-year, there is a fair amount of shifting, with big jumps and drops throughout. “Of the top 20 student-rated schools, 12 were the same in 2013 and 2014 for social impact, and 11 of the top 20 were the same for environmental impact,” Gerard explains. “For the top five, three of the top five were the same for social impact, and four of the top five were the same for environmental impact.” Gerard adds that since only schools that delivered 20 or more student survey responses were included in the rankings, MIT and Stanford were not ranked last year.


Net Impact also found that while the programs have gotten better and better at integrating social and environmental issues, in the past three years, students have become increasingly dissatisfied. They seem to be demanding more, especially when it comes to support for impact careers and experiential learning. In the past two years, Net Impact has asked students what they think is the most important issue for businesses to get right in the next decade. Both years, students put climate and energy first and sustainable product development second—potential growth areas for schools.

Nevertheless, Gerard acknowledges that business schools have come a long, long way. “There are just so many options out there versus back in the day when I went to school—it was more of a fringe concept,” Gerard says. She attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Public Management Program about 20 years ago, right around the time Net Impact came to being. Gerard had worked in consulting, and though she found that career path intellectually stimulating, she wanted something that would feed her soul, she says. The Public Management Program is now part of the school’s Center for Social Innovation, which offers everything from fellowships to support for students who want to transition into the nonprofit world.

Are these programs fueling student interest, or is student interest fueling these programs? There’s no simple answer to this chicken-and-egg question. Gerard believes that young people have always wanted to make a difference, adding that their interest might be clearer now that the social enterprise movement has expanded their options. “There are so many more pathways open to people who want to make an impact,” she says.

(See rankings on following pages)