10 Business Schools To Watch In 2021

A look at the innovative MBA programs with the most momentum heading into 2021

In business school, they teach you to be proactive. You learn the value of responding quickly and being versatile, resilient, and customer-centric. That starts with case studies, readings designed to help MBAs meld short-term impulse with a long-term strategy. You can think of cases as practices for the real thing. Every case reminds MBAs to weigh various constituencies against the alternatives at hand – and never forget that their decisions will be dogged by conflicting data and uncertain results.

2020 was a living case study for business school administrators, faculty, and students alike. In an industry ripe for disruption, the pandemic exposed every faulty assumption, frothing inequity, and short-sighted shortcut. Spend $200 million dollars on a new building? In hindsight, maybe investing in a more robust online infrastructure would’ve been the wiser path. Pack the schedule with live events and international excursions? That becomes a tough sell when students are terrified of leaving their lofts.

Last year, MBA students lived the disruption that past classes only debated in class. The world went virtual, as schools operated on the fly with no easy answers in sight. School leaders raced to pull resources and cobble together alternatives. They relied on alumni like never before. And some decided to reimagine their program, be it admissions or delivery. Sure enough, many came out stronger than before COVID-19 popped up in China.

Adapt. Invent. Transform. That’s what the programs highlighted in this year’s “10 Business Schools To Watch” did. Now in its sixth year, this feature celebrates innovation in education – and nothing stirs the creative juices like the potential ruin of a lucrative business model.

In turbulent 2020, you found MBA programs scrambling to adjust to an upended world like never before. Some overhauled their admissions policies to enter new markets. Others leveraged emerging technologies to bring students closer to the content – and each other. Many bucked convention, recognizing the riskiest proposition was standing still. Others doubled down on their strengths to further enrich the student experience. Whatever their approach, these schools to watch were defined by action – ones that reflected an unshakable commitment to their mission…and their learning community.

Which business schools broke new ground or set the bar higher for peer programs? Which programs are poised to make a deeper impact in 2021? From INSEAD to Illinois, here are the 10 MBA programs to watch for the coming year.

Kellogg-Gies Plaza

Northwestern University (Kellogg School of Management)

You can’t say Kellogg wasn’t busy last year. As business schools scrambled to respond to the COVID outbreak, Kellogg calmly implemented a series of policies that pressed an unexpected way forward. They were actions that challenged how MBA candidates should be evaluated and when decisions are truly rendered.

That started when Kellogg waived standardized test requirements for students in the spring. Forget GMATs and GREs (let alone MCATs, LSATs, and TOEFL). Standardized tests were out at Kellogg – at least into June. A desperate move? Not really – it was more of a concession to reality in the view of Kate Smith, Kellogg’s director of admissions and financial aid.

“With the test waiver, we are being agile and responsive in enabling us to build the most diverse class of Kellogg students we possibly can and to mitigate the factors that are out of control of the applicant,” Smith told P&Q last spring. “We want to be on the cutting edge to build the best possible class. We are not going to relax any standards of admission. A test score has always been one of many factors we use to evaluate candidates along with their work experience, their leadership potential, and their passion to be part of the Kellogg community. We have always cared about the holistic individual. People are not just a test score.”

At the same time, Kellogg announced that previously-rejected candidates could re-apply for consideration. That didn’t mean a ding automatically became a ping as Kellogg worked to build its 2022 Class. Instead, the school viewed it as an act of empathy – one designed to better level the playing field for candidates.

“We decided we should offer this to ensure equity among all applicants in the cycle,” Smith adds. “There are people all over the world who are going to have access issues to apply. But then we thought about all the people who applied in this academic cycle and that could create an inequity for them. So we think it’s the right thing to do. I want to reiterate there will be no relaxation of our admission standards. We are trying to do what we think is right in a moment in time where the world has turned upside down.”

The admissions process wasn’t the only area where Kellogg innovated. When it comes to content delivery, the school surveyed its students before developing a hybrid learning approach, one with a dual mix of synchronous and asynchronous content and intensive student support that focused on students’ individual learning needs.

“At the start of the Summer Term, I arrived at the Global Hub with my mask in hand, scanned my ID card to enter the building, showed my daily health check badge at the door, and took a seat at my socially distanced, assigned desk,” explains Sarah Pinner, who is part of the dual MMM program with the McCormick School of Engineering. “To foster inclusion and collaboration in the classroom, Kellogg adopted a “Roomie and Zoomie” approach. It consisted of a cohort of in-person students (the “Roomies”) and a cohort of virtual students (the “Zoomies”). As an in-person student, I was able to interact with my virtual classmates at all times via a gallery wall of Zoom displayed at the front of the class. I also collaborated with them in frequent breakout rooms and polls. Professors, who were in the physical classroom with the Roomies, were able to view virtual students on their screens as well. At the same time, there was a separate “Virtual Course Moderator” (i.e., a hands-on digital facilitator) who helped facilitate questions and participation from the Zoomies.”

Kellogg’s Kate Smith

Of course, it wasn’t just how the Kellogg team responded to the pandemic that made 2020 a defining year for them. In February, the school developed a deferred admissions program, the Kellogg Future Leaders program. In a nutshell, any undergraduate senior can apply for admission to the MBA, receiving up to five years to enroll. More impressive, the school introduced an MBAi program that will launch in 2021. A partnership between Kellogg and the McCormick School of Engineering, this 15-month program will pair the MBA with coursework in areas like machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The focus, notes Kate Smith, is bridging MBA programming in areas like tech product management and entrepreneurship with science and technology. The degree not only fulfills the pressing needs of employers today, but also addresses innovations being sparked now.

“One of our alums told me, ‘Well, actually I sit on boards and that’s the challenge companies face: They have to introduce data analytics, they have to introduce AI or other types of technology, they know they have to do it but they don’t know how to go about it,’” says Francesca Cornelli, who is now beginning her second year as Kellogg’s dean. “And that’s the challenge everybody faces. Others were venture capitalists and they say, ‘This is the people we need. This is the type of company we are creating.’ So really we felt the ‘why,’ I wouldn’t say obvious, but it was clear to me there was that need. I thought the cooperation between us and McCormick was crucial in doing something that.”

The degree also fits with Cornelli’s longer-term dream. “My job is not to get students the next job,” she told P&Q in a 2020 interview. “They will get a job and they will shine. But ten years from now that job may not exist anymore or will be completely different. We live in an era of change and disruption. What we need is to teach people to be adaptable, to see change and to embrace opportunity. So when people ask what is the value of an MBA, I say it’s not your next job. We want to impact all your life, the entire trajectory.”

Certainly, the incoming class subscribed to this mission. Kellogg reported a 54% jump in applications during the 2019-2020 cycle. The surge enabled Kellogg to enroll 85 more students this fall – a change that brings added benefits to the MBA student body, adds Kate Smith.  “With a larger class, this talented group of students benefits from more diverse perspectives in their networks, and also in the classroom and in their careers. A larger class allows us to offer additional specialized electives, and to continue to attract one of the broadest arrays of companies that recruit at any business school.”

That bodes well for the Class of 2022 – and those beyond. A program built on creativity, innovation, and empathy, Kellogg’s defining feature is undoubtedly teamwork. The school estimates that students participate in over 200 meetings during their two years in Evanston. This practice, adds Dean Cornelli, gives Kellogg graduates an edge in a world increasingly reliant on sharing and persuading.

“People talk in terms of collaboration and working in teams. The way I think about it is that we produce people with empathy and the ability to inspire others. When disruption comes and you have a great idea, you need to convince the people around you, your colleagues, your team or your investors that your idea is worth investment. You can’t do a good idea alone. You need money or talent or other things. How people influence others is so important to learn.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.