The Economist’s 2012 MBA Ranking Winners & Losers

The Economist admits it upfront. In the fine print of its MBA ranking methodology, the magazine slaps a warning on its own product akin to a message you might see on a bottle of medication:

“Results of rankings can be volatile, so they should be treated with caution.”

Amen.

Some 23 of the 100 business school’s on The Economist’s 2012 list published today (Oct. 4) experienced double-digit falls or rises over last year. And that number doesn’t account for the schools that either dropped out altogether or surfaced out of the blue, many of which had double-digit changes as well.

FOR MANY BUSINESS SCHOOLS, THE ECONOMIST RANKING IS ONE, WILD ROLLER COASTER RIDE

Many prominent business schools clearly felt extreme volatility in how they were ranked–or not–by The Economist. At least a half dozen schools fell off the list entirely, likely because the sample size obtained by the magazine of alums fell below its minimum threshold. Among the disappearing schools are Ashridge, ranked 72nd last year; Edinburgh, previously ranked 84th; Thunderbird (87); Tilburg (93); the University of Florida (97), and the University of South Carolina (99).

THE BIGGEST LOSERS THIS YEAR: VIERICK LEUVEN AND UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN

Then, the other big losers this year were schools that fell by double-digits in a single year. Vierick Leuven and University College Dublin’s Smurfit School both plunged 25 places to finish 66th and 63rd, respectively. Other than falling off the list entirely, no other MBA programs ranked by The Economist turned in a year-over-year performance as bad as a 25-place drop.

The U.S. school losing the most ground in The Economist survey this year was the University of Southern California’s Marshall School. It fell 21 spots to a rank of 43rd from 22 last year. Penn State’s Smeal School of Business didn’t fare much better. It plummeted 18 places to a rank of 68th from 50th in 2011.

THE BIGGEST WINNERS: IIM-AHMEDAHAD AND LANCASTER UNIVERSITY

And the winners? The single biggest gain in this year’s ranking went to the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedahad in India. The school jumped 22 places to a rank of 56th this year, up from 78th in 2011. Lancaster University Management School also did exceptionally well, rising 20 spots to rank 80th in the survey from 100th last year.

The U.S. schools with the biggest lifts in The Economist ranking were Temple University’s Fox School of Business which moved up a dozen places to a rank of 77 from 89th in 2011. Cornell University’s Johnson School climbed 10 places to a rank of 15th from 25th a year earlier. Georgetown University’s McDonough School rose nine spots to finish 35th, up from 44th last year.

The business schools which entered the list after being absent last year included Arizona State, ranked 59th; Texas Christian (71), the International University of Japan (79); St. Gallen University (81); WHU in Germany (87); the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester (89); the International University of Monaco (97), and Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management (100th).

WHAT VOLATILITY GENERALLY TELLS YOU ABOUT A RANKING

What does such wild volatility in a ranking suggest? Mostly that the underlying data reflecting the rank each school is assigned is so close that it is statistically meaningless. The Economist, unlike some ranking organizations, does not disclose the underlying index behind each school’s rank, largely because it would inevitably show that there is little if any difference among many of the ranked schools.

That is why even insignificant changes in the metrics that The Economist uses to rank schools can produce fairly unusual swings in the rankings. Not only is The Economist aware of this problem. It also adjusts its methodology to dampen down the impact of large changes. As the magazine explains, “Memory has been built into the rankings by taking a weighted average of 2011 (50%), 2010 (30%) and 2009 (20%) data to provide a rounded picture of the school. Sudden movements in data, which might not produce an immediate increase in quality, are thus reflected gradually, much as the improvement would affect students.”

If not for a little memory, far more schools would be on the roller coaster ride.

(See following page for a table of the biggest winners and losers in The Economist’s 2012 business school ranking)

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.