Ten Biggest Surprises In The Economist’s 2019 MBA Ranking

Another year, another list. The Economist‘s 2019 MBA ranking represents the 18th time the British magazine has trotted out a list of the best full-time MBA programs in the world. So what are the biggest takeaways in 2019? What really surprised us? What make us shrug our shoulders and even laugh?

As usual, there is often plenty of surprises on any ranking. But that is especially true of The Economist‘s lists. In fact, given the stature and prestige of the magazine, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how counterintuitive the results of the ranking have been since its debut in 2002.

Year in and year out, there tends to be dozens of head-scratching outcomes when it comes to this list, from a large number of MBA programs that rise of fall by double-digits year-over-year to the fact that the most likely No. 1 schools have never made it to the top of the ranking.


Consider this factoid which may well be the single biggest surprise of all: In 18 separate rankings over 18 years, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, London Business School or INSEAD have never managed to capture a No. 1 ranking from The Economist.

Harvard has climbed no higher than second place, only reaching that level this year, and has been as low as 13th.

Wharton has fallen as low as 21st and has never received a ranking higher than fourth place.

INSEAD, regarded by many as Europe’s best business school, has never cracked the top ten and has been as low as 26th on The Economist’s rankings.

The often quirky results of this ranking–like all the other lists–are due to its methodology.

In many ways, The Economist ranking is similar to the Financial Times. For one, it’s global in scope and weighs several factors that tend to favor non-U.S. schools. It examines many criteria—21 different metrics in all, from the diversity of the on-campus recruiters to the range of overseas exchange programs. Compensation and career placement are heavily weighted, including starting salaries, pre-MBA versus post-MBA pay increases, and the percentage of graduates who land job offers within three months of graduation. If you include student views of the career services office and the “spread,” or diversity, of companies who recruited students, pay and placement account for 55% of the methodology.

The one big difference with The Financial Times is its rather significant reliance on student satisfaction, gathered by an annual survey of current MBA students and recent alumni. They’re asked to rate the quality of the faculty, the career services staff, the school’s curriculum and culture, the facilities, the alumni network, and their classmates.

So which school has been the great beneficiary of The Economist‘s MBA blessings? That leads us to this year’s single biggest surprise.

Students work inside the Rothman Winter Garden at the Charles M. Harper Center, which houses the Chicago Booth School of Business (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

1) Why Chicago Booth Kills The Economist Ranking

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business is a world-class institution that can proudly claim more Nobel Prize winners than any other business school in the world. Its full-time MBA program is solidly in the so-called M7, the magnificent seven institutions largely regarded as the best business schools in the world.  And Booth just totally nails it when it comes to The Economist‘s ranking.

Over the 18-year span of this ranking, Booth has claimed the top title 50% of the time. It’s nine No. 1 rankings, including this year’s top honors, are more than double the wins of the second most favored MBA program by The Economist, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management which has been atop the list four times. So how in the world does Chicago Booth do it?

Don’t expect The Economist to explain it. The latest ranking is accompanied by an article that has nothing to do with the ranking itself. It focuses on how American business schools are reinventing the MBA. Not only does The Economist not explain how Booth won this year’s ranking; The Economist doesn’t even report out the basic results of its ranking. Even when you look at the key metrics used to determine the overall ranking, Booth’s dominance becomes a bigger puzzle. In the all-important salary categories, for example, the school is behind ten other MBA programs. And when it comes to opening “new career opportunities,” a category with three core metrics on job offers, student opinions of career services and the diversity of recruiters, Booth places 15th.

Chicago kills this ranking because it scores fairly well across almost all of the 21 metrics used by The Economist to rank MBA programs and because the differences among the top schools on these metrics are often statistically meaningless. They are so closely clustered together that fractions of a difference assume far more importance than common sense would dictate.

Where Booth excels is in what The Economist calls “personal development and educational experience,” a category of its ranking that accounts for a 35% weight. Booth leads all schools in this category which includes 13 different measures from average GMAT scores to the percentage of faculty with PhDs. Its number one showing in this part of the methodology isn’t all that obvious, either. In a category called faculty quality, for example, The Economist ranks Booth 23rd which is hardly credible at all. But “faculty quality” is the sum of a trio of data points: the ratio of faculty to students (ranked 96th), student opinions of the faculty (ranked 2nd), and the percentage of full-time faculty with PhDs (ranked 47th).

So why does Booth kill The Economist ranking? It’s because the school ranks low on very few of the 21 data points gathered by the magazine. While Booth rarely comes out first on these 21 metrics, the school is often closer to the top scores than its rivals. That is the secret to Booth’s long-standing success in the ranking.

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