Ten Biggest Surprises In U.S. News 2020 MBA Ranking

Another year, another U.S. News MBA ranking–and still more surprises and shocks.

You can start the shock treatment with Harvard Business School’s dismal showing in U.S. News’ 2020 ranking, a sixth-place finish that was the school’s worst performance ever in the most important MBA ranking to Harvard’s applicant pool. That itself was no unpredictable that no one could have guessed the outcome. In fact, in Poets&Quants‘ inaugural MBA Fantasy Rankings Game, not a single person was able to accurately forecast the top ten before the list came out on Tuesday morning.

But there were plenty of other shocks and surprises on the list. Pretty much everyone has a love/hate relationship with rankings, and while the U.S. News list is the most closely watched, it’s not without considerable flaws. They include a survey of recruiters that few major recruiters actually complete. A peer assessment survey filled out by deans and MBA directors who simply take the previous year’s ranking out to complete the form. An overreliance on pay and placement data that does not take into account industry career choices or geography. And, of course, it’s an entirely U.S. centric ranking that ignores many international schools that are good or much better than many of the MBA programs ranked by the magazine.

Regardless, here’s our look at the top ten unexpected results, from the obvious to the less obvious.

U.S. News 2020 MBA ranking created stormy weather for Harvard Business School which had its worst showing ever in U.S. News, finishing in sixth place.

1) Has Harvard Business School Really Lost Its Mojo?

Little more than a month before U.S. News delivered its bomb to the Harvard Business School campus, the school’s marketing department released the results of an HBS student survey which showed that the magazine’s annual ranking was the most read and influential among the school’s MBA applicant pool. Harvard reported that 74% of the responding students said they consulted the ranking while applying to business school and 46% said the publication’s rankings influenced their school choices.

Talk about bad timing. Fast forward six weeks and HBS ends up with its worst showing ever in a ranking that has been published since 1990. It was bad enough when Harvard finished third last year behind Wharton and Stanford. Now the school’s full-time MBA program is ranked sixth behind Northwestern Kellogg, Chicago Booth, and MIT Sloan. Even if you take these rankings with a big grain of salt, which you certainly should, Harvard’s finish is especially embarrassing after the marketing department’s survey and it is hardly a crowning achievement for Dean Nitin Nohria who departs the deanship at the end of this academic year after a ten-year run.

No matter what you think of rankings, it’s not good news, especially when your core stakeholders hold the ranking in such high esteem. And if you look under the hood at some of the key drivers behind the drop, you would find reason for concern. The school fell in five of the eight data points. Among other things, U.S. News’ data shows that the average salaries and sign-on bonuses of Harvard MBAs last year of $164,872 trailed six other rivals: Wharton ($172,016), NYU Stern ($168,291), Stanford ($168,226), Dartmouth Tuck ($166,251), Virginia Darden ($165,292), and Columbia Business School ($164,945). That data point is a standard measure of the market worth of a school’s MBAs, even though it is also influenced by industry choice and geography. It’s not as if HBS grads are going into the social sector, after all.

Even worse, perhaps, was the employment rate for Harvard MBAs three months after graduation: 88.5%. While that job rate is equal to Stanford, a larger share of the GSB’s grads seek jobs outside the MBA recruiting mainstream at Silicon Valley startups, early-stage companies, private equity shops, and venture capital firms. Eight of the top ten schools beat Harvard on the metric, including Wharton and MIT Sloan (both at 93.%%), Kellogg (95.5%), and Booth (95.1%). In fact, 22 of the top 25 business schools did better.

You could argue, of course, that rankings matter less to Harvard and Stanford than they do at any other business school. That’s because those two exceptionally resourced brands are embedded in people’s brains as the best B-schools in the world, no matter what U.S. News or any other ranking has to say about it. Brand equity matters. We expect HBS to bounce back with a new dean at the helm. With its $3 billion-plus endowment (worth a lot less given the virus-induced crash), a stellar faculty, the ability to draw the best applicants and a record yield rate in getting admits to enroll, a sixth-place finish is clearly an aberration.

2) A 30-Year Roller-Coaster Ride For U.S. B-Schools

As Harvard Business School discovered this year, schools go up and schools go down. Any year-over-year change is a ranking can’t be taken all that seriously. But over the long term, rankings can more likely tell you what schools have done a really good job and are on the move and what schools are sinking. Go back to 1990 when U.S. News & World Report began ranking full-time MBA programs in earnest and you’ll see what we mean.

The top-tier school with the most momentum over the past three decades? Yale School of Management. In 1990, SOM ranked 25th best in the nation. In the past 30 years, SOM has moved up 18 places to rank ninth this year. New York University’s Stern School of Business and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are also clear winners. Stern has gained eight places to rank tenth this year, while Haas has advanced six over the time span to rank seventh. The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business moved up five spots to rank third.

And the schools that have lost momentum? Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business has tumbled half a dozen places so that it has now ranked outside the top ten in U.S. News for the past two years. The University of Michigan’s Ross School has dropped five spots to 12th, though it was seventh two years ago — exactly where it was in 1990.

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