How Business Schools Rank By Specialization

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Every MBA program is known for something. Harvard Business School carries the moniker of being the “West Point of leadership.” Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management has been branded as a marketer’s paradise. MIT is a two-year boot camp for mastering thankless backend operations. If you want to become a CFO, just flip a coin between Wharton and Booth.

Do those reputations carry weight? One barometer is the annual U.S. News & World Report specialization rankings. For years, U.S. News has ranked Harvard and Kellogg as the top schools for management and marketing, respectively. In 2016, Sloan topped all comers in operational and technological excellence. As you’d expect, Wharton and Booth respectively placed No. 1 and No. 2 in finance.


Ranking by specialization projects a slanted view of a school’s value, however. MBAs are designed to be an all-inclusive degree, providing students with a deep dive into every facet of a business operation. While MBAs may concentrate on certain areas, business expectations have shifted. A generation ago, MBAs proved themselves in their areas of expertise; then they boned up on the rest of the operation as they climbed the ladder. Now, every facet is intertwined.

Take marketing, for example. Business school can teach marketers how to develop, test, and roll out strategies. It also prepares them to stake competitive positions and craft brand stories. However, factors like budgets and distribution capacities can hem in even the best ideas. Eventually, marketers will want to set direction instead of simply following the playbook. That requires them to understand where resources are divvied out (and why). It demands a fluency in the precise language of finance over the rococo rhythms of sales. Most importantly, this next step means stepping into a leadership role — and shouldering the burdens of setting the tone, holding people accountable, and following through.

That means the real measuring stick isn’t whether schools are strong in students’ areas of interest. Instead, the true test is whether a program is solid across the board. According to that criterion, three MBA programs stand out in U.S. News’ specialization ranking: the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.


In each case, the school is ranked among the top 20 programs in each of the 10 specializations established by U.S. News, which range from marketing and management to information systems and international business. Stanford was particularly impressive, ranking in the top 10 across all specializations, led by a No. 1 rank in entrepreneurship (tied with with Babson College). The school’s lowest ranking? It placed eighth in international business.

Why does this matter? For starters, think network. A Stanford MBA with a finance concentration, for example, would easily be able to turn to some of the best and brightest in other fields. Picture this scenario: Ten years from now, that finance person may become an angel investor who is evaluating a supply chain opportunity. Where can this person go for advice? Try fellow alumni, with Stanford ranking as the sixth-best school for a logistics specialization according to U.S. News. Along with advice, the supply chain specialist called by this investor might just make a great CEO or managing partner for the venture.

An all-inclusive MBA program can create some unique synergies. Notably, it creates an atmosphere rife with encompassing idea exchanges in class and more well-rounded teams in classes, clubs, and competitions. Not to mention, such diversity is more apt to spawn multidisciplinary startup ideas with greater staying power. Is it any surprise that Stanford GSB, an entrepreneurial powerhouse, has graduated students who’ve successfully launched startups that have received investment in the tens and hundreds of millions in eclectic markets like loan refinancing, relationship management, product delivery, and car technology?

Ross was nearly as impressive. Ranked 12th overall, the school finished in the top 10 in nine out of 10 categories. It peaked at fourth in operations, while finishing 12th in information systems — a category where several leading programs went unranked, including Harvard, Booth, Kellogg, Tuck, Columbia, and Yale. Berkeley Haas ranked in every specialization category as well, topping out at third in international business and bottoming out at 20th in accounting.

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