HOW INSEAD REALLY BEAT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
So how did INSEAD nudge HBS from its first-place perch, a position it held for three consecutive years? The answer TO that question sheds light and much-needed perspective on the legitimacy of not only the latest Financial Times ranking, but of most attempts to measure the quality of an MBA experience by assigning a number next to it.
Of the 20 different metrics used in the FT’s methodology, Harvard beats INSEAD on 11, while INSEAD defeats HBS on nine. The two most critical measures, accounting for 40% of the ranking’s weight, are the average salaries of alumni three years out and the increase in alumni salary over pre-MBA pay. Both metrics are derived from the newspaper’s surveys of alumni that are highly dependent on response rates and honest replies from respondents.
According to the FT, HBS alumni three years out are on average making $172,501, slightly more than INSEAD’s $166,510. But that’s much less of a gap than had existed only a year earlier. INSEAD alums narrowed the income difference to roughly $5,991 this year from $24,895 last year when Harvard was No. 1. On the salary increase measure, INSEAD just barely nudged out HBS with a 96% increase for alumni, up from 86% a year earlier. Harvard alums, meantime, saw a 94% increase, down from 96% last year.
HARVARD ALUMS MORE SATISIFED, BUT INSEAD CRUSHES HBS ON GLOBAL METRICS
How credible are these calculations? Not very. For one thing, the numbers are adjusted by the FT to account for purchasing parity (something that disadvantages a school that sends fewer grads into poorer countries where poverty rates are high). For another, alumni providing the data know that compensation is the single most important metric in the FT‘s methodology so some graduates would be tempted to inflate their incomes so their alma maters can get a better ranking. It’s noteworthy, for example, that last year’s HBS graduates had median total compensation of $151,211, second highest in the world behind only Stanford. There were 16 other U.S. schools ahead of INSEAD, which came in at $138,240.
More telling, perhaps, is what happened in the past year to these salary numbers. According to the FT, the salaries of Harvard alums fell by 4.4%, more than any other top ten school by salary, while the salaries of INSEAD alums rose by 6.8%, more than any top ten school. Because these numbers carry the most weight in the methodology, they effectively put INSEAD ahead, even though there is no plausible reason why HBS salaries would be down the most and INSEAD pay would rise more than any other. The most obvious explanation is that the difference has more to do with the survey sample than it does with the actual compensation numbers.
If the FT gave just a bit more weight to the actual opinions in its alumni survey, Harvard would have won hands down. Based on alumni responses, HBS beat INSEAD on “career progress,” ranked 7th vs. 25th; “alumni recommendation,” ranked 1st vs. 6th; “placement success,” ranked 40th vs. 59th, “aims achieved” and “employment three months after graduation.” HBS also handedly beat INSEAD on gender diversity by having more female faculty, students and board members.
The FT methodology puts a 20% weight on international metrics, all of which favor INSEAD, which beats HBS by having more international faculty, students, board members, greater international mobility, a higher percentage of graduates who engaged in exchange programs, foreign study tours and projects, and requiring that graduates speak three languages.
WHAT ISN’T MEASURED MAY VERY WELL BE MORE IMPORTANT IN DETERMINING QUALITY
The slightest changes in any ranking methodology, of course, would cause dramatic upheavals in these lists. If the Financial Times measured the GMAT scores of incoming classes, where HBS beats INSEAD by 30 points, 730 to 700, or acceptance rate, where HBS beats INSEAD by an estimated 19 percentage points, 11% vs. 30%, the results would differ greatly. If the FT gave HBS points for diversity of student work backgrounds, that would matter as well. HBS has double the percentage of students with high tech experience, nearly double in healthcare, and almost three times as many students with government, nonprofit and educational backgrounds.
While these are differences between HBS and INSEAD, the same issues can be applied to any of the MBA programs on the list. Add a different variable or weight an existing metric differently and the rank order of the schools on the list would dramatically change. These nuances are important for applicants to consider because often what media outlets measure in their rankings may matter less than other factors they fail to take into account. No less crucial, they reveal any one ranking to be little more than the ungodly sum of many often ill-informed judgments of the editors who create them.
For this year, at least, INSEAD rules the Financial Times roost. No matter how you cut it, that’s still a remarkable and proud accomplishment for a world-class MBA program. As Diarte Edwards points out in her essay, “INSEAD’s winning formula has firmly cemented its position among the world’s leading business schools. And in the volatile world of MBA rankings, the school should enjoy this moment in the sun.”
(See following pages for the new Financial Times‘ 2016 ranking)