Harvard Nudges Aside Stanford For Top Honors In Financial Times’ Ranking

FT 2020 Global MBA Ranking

There’s a new winner atop the 2020 Financial Times Global MBA Ranking.

Even as applications to the most elite business schools in the U.S. continue to fall while interest in European MBA options rise to record levels, the big brand American MBA programs continue to dominate the most consulted global ranking of MBA programs.

In this year’s newly updated Financial Times list, Harvard Business School nudges aside Stanford Graduate School of Business for top honors on the 2020 global MBA ranking. While that may seem like ho-hum news given Harvard’s long-time prominence as the Citadel of Capitalism, it’s only the sixth time in 21 rankings that HBS has managed to stake out the FT’s highest MBA honor (see below table). Yet, in only three of the 21 years since the launch of this ranking in 2000 have non-U.S. schools claimed sole possession of first place.

In a ranking designed to favor non-U.S. programs, 15 of the top 25 MBA programs remain based in the U.S. where applications to MBA programs are likely to decline for the sixth year in a row. The resiliency of the American MBA is particularly striking because rival schools in Europe and Asia have become far more successful than ever before at attracting some of the world’s best applicants and faculty.


Harvard Business School on a beautiful spring day. Photo by John A. Byrne

Following Harvard on the 2020 list are the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, No. 3 Stanford Graduate School of Business, No. 4 INSEAD, and No. 5 CEIBs in Shanghai, China. These were the exact five MBA programs at the top of last year’s Financial Times’ ranking, only reshuffled. Stanford slipped two places, while Wharton improved two spots from fourth to it second-place finish. INSEAD inched lower by one spot, while CEIBs maintained its highest rank ever achieved last year in fifth.

Still, there are plenty of surprises and a few shocks on the new ranking. For the first time ever, HEC Paris cracked the top ten, soaring ten places to rank ninth from 19th only a year ago. That impressive jump puts HEC Paris just below No. 8 Columbia Business School and one spot before the No. 10 MBA program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. HEC has been a major beneficiary in the shift in interest to European options. Applications to the school’s full-time MBA program have risen 25% in the past year alone to 2,636 candidates for only 295 classroom seats, allowing HEC the lowest acceptance rate (19%) for any European business school. In contrast, Harvard saw a 6.7% drop in applications.

But its latest rise on the FT list can largely be attributed to a substantial boost in the salaries reported by alumni who graduated from HEC three years ago. The average base was $164,529, up by 15.3% from $142,622 last year. Alums boosted their pre-MBA salaries by 133%, much better than the 106% reported a year earlier. The school also did better a number of other FT-measured metrics, including a rank of 11 best for ‘value for money,’ up from 34th last year, and a rank of 18 for ‘career progress,’ up from 22nd in 2019.

Just as surprising, one of Europe’s most successful institutions, the highly innovative IE Business School in Madrid, plunged 21 places to its lowest Financial Times ranking ever, finishing 52nd from 31st a year earlier. The school was tossed off the Financial Times‘ 2018 ranking after FT editors said they had discovered “irregularities” in returned alumni surveys from IE. Only three years ago, IE’s MBA program finished eighth-best in the world in 2017 when it was also third-best in Europe. Now the Financial Times ranks 12 other European programs, including Spanish rivals IESE and ESADE as well as Warwick Business School and Cass Business School at City, University of London, higher than IE.

IE’s fall reflects declines in a number of FT data points. Average alumni salaries fell to $135,422, from $153,547 last year and $168,923 in 2017. That’s a 19.8% drop in two years that forced down the pay boost of an IE MBA to 83% of pre-school salaries, down from 100% last year and 108% in 2017. The rank given to ‘career progress’ slipped to 33 from four in 2017, while the MBA program’s ‘value for money’ fell to 59th from 24th three years ago.


Two of the biggest winners on this year’s list are the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Darden advanced another five places to rank 18th, its highest FT rank, moving the school into the Top 20 in the world. No less important, however, this latest improvement comes on top of a nine-place gain the previous year. Just three years ago, Darden finished in 35th place in 2017. Darden’s position–which now puts the school 12th best in the U.S.–was partly enhanced by the addition of last years’ new FT metric on corporate social responsibility in the ranking. Darden came out first last year and second in 2020 behind only IESE Business School for having a substantial amount of teaching on the subject in its core curriculum.

USC’s Marshall School, meantime, rose 10 places on the FT list to rank 36th globally and 20th among U.S. schools, its highest FT position. Under recently ousted Dean Jim Ellis, the school has established remarkable rankings momentum. The latest gain comes after Marshall improved its status in four different rankings last year–U.S. News, Forbes, The Economist and the FT–to rank 19th on Poets&Quants‘ list of the best U.S. MBA programs.

Another important beneficiary of the new ranking is Washington University’s Olin Business School. Olin jumped ten places as well to rank 44th best in the world. In the past five years, the school has climbed 28 positions after finishing 72nd in 2015. The FT ranked Olin 80th in 2016 when the school recruited Mark Taylor, then the dean of Warwick Business School, to become its new leader. He championed a new global MBA curriculum that won Olin Best MBA Program of the Year honors from Poets&Quants and is a major reason for the school’s ten-place advance this year.


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