MBA Programs That Students Love Most

Darden alumni kicking back in front of their alma mater.

MBAs love formulas and models. In theory, they furnish clarity and consistency, a means to prune and parade data. However, there are always factors that will defy precision and certainty. In business, they involve fundamentals like culture and strategy – variables that are difficult to quantify…let alone execute.

That’s one reason why you won’t find one template for creating a business school that produces far more raves than rants. Take the University of Virginia and Stanford. On the surface, you won’t find two programs that are more different. Darden, for example, can be described as old school, a case-driven plan of attack that relishes academic excellence and intensive preparation.


“Teaching matters here a lot,” says Ron Wilcox, who serves as the senior associate dean for degree programs at Darden, in a recent Q&A with Poets&Quants. “We expect teaching excellence of every single faculty member. If they aren’t excellent, it is not a comfortable environment for them to be in long-term. That is part of our culture that has paid dividends over the years.

Yossi Feinberg

On the opposite coast, you’ll find the Stanford GSB, a program that embraces experimentation and teamwork like few others. “The learning experience is very collaborative here, explains Yossi Feinberg, the school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, in a separate interview with P&Q. “A lot of experiential learning happens in teams and we have an environment where you learn not to be afraid of failure. Having this strong, effective, and supportive team helps the learning experiences.”

It would be a mistake, however, to conflate the Stanford program, which rests heavily on self-discovery and collegiality, with a cakewalk. “[Our curriculum] enables you to challenge people much more because if they compete they must work together – then their ability to go further is much higher,” Feinberg explains. “We can challenge students much more academically because they rise to the challenge, but they rise cooperatively.”

Robust offerings, academic rigor, and supportive communities are just a few of the virtues shared by Stanford and Darden. While they may approach the classroom differently, they ultimately arrive at the same destination: a transformative general management education that prepares them for the exhausting demands, terrifying uncertainties, and brutal tradeoffs inherent to modern business.


These results may explain why both Darden and Stanford rank among the most popular MBA programs according to the annual survey conducted by The Economist. Targeting current students and the most recent graduating class, The Economist asks respondents to score their school satisfaction on a scale of 1-to-5 (with 5 being the highest mark). Not surprisingly, Darden has traditionally earned the highest marks from students, with Stanford slotted among the top schools. The 2017 survey was no different – with a caveat.

In an upset, New York University – which was profiled along with Northwestern in last year’s analysis of The Economist survey results – snagged the top spot, edging out IESE and the University of Chicago by a statistically insignificant .03 and.05 of a point respectively. Stanford and Darden rounded out the Top Five tied at 4.54.

Overall, 21 of the 25 top MBA programs pulled by P&Q received lower scores against the 2015 survey – which included a completely different sample. Overall, IE Business School suffered the biggest drop, losing .35 of a point. U.C.-Berkeley (-.31) and the University of North Carolina (-.31) trailing close behind. At the same time, HEC Paris gained .15 of a point over the past two years, with Stanford producing a .06 gain.


Bicycling near the Stanford GSB

If you conducted a word association on Stanford with MBA applicants, “experiential learning” is bound to be among the first terms choseen. While it is a program strength, a better descriptor might be “experimental learning.” According to Feinberg, the Stanford faculty is incessantly tinkering with the curriculum – always testing new content and delivery and always on the lookout for ideas that might resonate with students and enrich the classroom experience.

“The modalities used by GSB – there’s a lot of variation,” Feinberg shares. “It’s not everyone doing case method, experiential learning, lecture, or guest lecture. You have all of them and you have huge variety in each one. When we have the case method, for example, it is used in dramatically different ways between faculty members. What does that mean? It means there is a lot of experimentation and innovation in the classroom.”

This creates a major opportunity for Feinberg, where he is able to harness and share the best classroom practices across the program. This dynamic approach also fits the ethos of Stanford and its seat in Silicon Valley, which prizes risk and independence and fears complacency and limits.

“By the nature of it, we don’t have one production model for all of the classes,” Feinberg adds. “Essentially, we have many dozens of startups; we want to preserve the entrepreneurial spirit to preserve best practices across the school.”

Go to Page 4 to see student and alumni survey scores given to 25 top MBA programs on student satisfaction. 

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