First MBA Ranking Of Year Hits On Jan. 29

A recent INSEAD graduation. Will INSEAD repeat for the third time in a row?

Will INSEAD make it a three-peat, claiming the No. 1 spot in the Financial Times ranking for the third consecutive time? Or will one the FT’s previous winners, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School or Harvard Business School, return to the top of the list?

That’s the biggest question that will be eagerly awaited when the Financial Times unveils what will be its 20th global MBA ranking survey on Jan. 29th. In the previous 19 years that the FT has been ranking full-time MBA programs, only five schools have been able to claim the top spot: Wharton, Harvard, London Business School, Stanford, and INSEAD (see below chart).

Wharton has a commanding lead over its rivals in taking top honors in this ranking, capturing the No. 1 position on 10 of the 19 lists. Harvard Business School is next, with five first place finishes. London Business School claimed first three times, though it had to share the top spot twice with Wharton. INSEAD has won twice, last year and in 2016, while Stanford got the nod only one time in 19 years in 2012.


Over that span, one obvious trend has been the greater likelihood that a European school would top the list. For the first ten years, Harvard and Wharton sat atop this ranking. For five of the last nine years, London Business School and INSEAD have been first. The FT has tweaked its methodology over the years in ways that may have allowed this trend to occur. The last publicized change occurred last year when it increased the number of academic journals it tracks for a ‘research’ metric to 50 from 45 after “consultation with business schools in June 2016.” Regardless, it’s clear that the FT ranking, the most followed list in Europe and Asia, has increasingly favored non-U.S. schools in more recent years.

When the list debuted in 1999, nine of the top ten schools were all American, with only London Business School breaking onto the list at a rank of eight. Last year, five of the ten were outside the U.S., with INSEAD at first, Cambridge in fifth, London in sixth, and IESE Business School in Spain in tenth place. Only five non-U.S. schools made the top 25 in 1999; last year, 11 schools did. Yet, U.S. business schools have greater numbers of international students and faculty than ever before and are certain to put their MBAs into global immersions–and these attributes are measured and ranked by the FT in its methodology. (When the FT list first came out, only 26% of HBS’ students were international. Last year, the total was 35%).

Asian schools have also come on strong in the FT ranking. At the start, when the 1999 list ranked only 50 schools, not a single Asian school made the list. Last year, a dozen schools in Asia were included in the ranking, with CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai placing 11th, highest of any Asian MBA program. The FT already has disclosed that the highest new entrant on its forthcoming 2018 ranking is an Asian school and is suggesting that CEIBS cracked the top ten in 2018.


School Times at No. 1 Years
UPenn (Wharton) 10 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001
Harvard Business School 5 2015, 2014, 2013, 2000, 1999
London Business School 3 2011, 2010, 2009
INSEAD 2 2017, 2016
Stanford 1 2012


The trend suggests that INSEAD has the advantage in the FT ranking and will most likely win its third straight No. 1 victory. However, the actual difference between a school ranked first, second, third or fourth is typically so tenuous that it is statistically meaningless. That is because the index scores behind the ranks–undisclosed by the Financial Times–are usually just closely clustered together and mere fractions apart.

The last time the FT revealed the underyling index numbers was for its 2001 ranking. Through the first three iterations, the figures narrowed considerably, leading the FT to no longer make them public. In 2001, the difference between No. 1 ranked Harvard and No. 2 ranked Wharton was all of .8. the difference between the No. 4 ranked Chicago and No. 5 Columbia was just four-tenths of a percent. As the editors now note, “although the headline ranking figures show changes in the data year to year, the pattern of clustering among the schools is equally significant.” So small, subtle differences that have nothing to do with the actual quality of a program can cause a surprise or an upset.

After all, the FT uses 20 different metrics to rank MBA programs, ranging from salary (40% of the weight) to academic research in 50 journals over nearly a three-year timeframe (10%). None of the metrics, unlike several other ranking methodologies including U.S. News, attempt to measure the quality of the incoming class. There are no GMAT or GRE averages, GPA scores, or a school’s acceptance rate in the FT mix.

In recent days, the FT has been publishing a series of articles to seed greater interest in its forthcoming ranking, often tossing out little teasers of information. Among other things, the Financial Times has suggested that Canadian schools may advance in the new ranking because they have been able to attract larger numbers of international applicants and students as some internationals decide not to come to the U.S. due to anti-immigration political rhetoric and visa policies.


“Mr. Trump’s election could affect the 2018 MBA ranking in two ways,” the FT suggests. “An immediate impact would be a lower proportion of international students — which counts for five per cent of the ranking’s total score. In the long term, fewer international students would result in less diverse cohorts, which would lower the quality of courses and reduce networking opportunities. It may also lower the quality of applicants.”

The British newspaper also has noted that in its new ranking, a two-year MBA program has climbed the highest number of places, while a one-year MBA has suffered the biggest drop. More important, perhaps, the FT has revealed that its survey of MBA alumni are doing quite well. “Salaries have since picked up to reach an average of $142,000 in 2017, up 12 per cent on 2014, and early data analysis from the 2018 ranking indicate that salaries are still increasing,” according to the FT. “Average alumni salaries have increased year on year for about three-quarters of schools…If the latest trend continues, the overall average salary should be near to $150,000 in 2018.”

The newspaper also measures the post-MBA salary increases over pre-school levels for alumni out three years.MBA grads always at least doubled their salaries within the three years of completing their degree, except in 2015 when the increase fell to 93% when pre-MBA salaries increased much faster than post-MBA salaries. Last year, the increase moved back above 100% when slightly more than half of the alums at all ranked schools had salary increases greater than 100%. In 2018, the FT disclosed, almost two-thirds of alumni cohorts more than doubled their salaries.

That’s all good news for the MBA market. The only question now is will INSEAD stay on top.