Wild Changes In The Economist’s New MBA Ranking

IESE Business School places first in The Economist MBA ranking

What a difference the pandemic world can make.

When The Economist published its 2019 MBA ranking, eight U.S. business schools comfortably occupied eight of the top ten positions with the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business earning the highest honors just ahead of Harvard Business School. Not surprisingly, many of the usual U.S. players took their usual places in the ranking hierarchy.

This year, two-and-one-half months late for the newest update published today (Jan. 21)–the European Schools swept to their strongest finish yet, claiming half the spots out of the top ten. IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, surged nine places to the very top of the list. HEC Paris was second. EDHEC in France shot up 25 places as did IMD in Switzerland to place seventh and tenth, respectively.

What happened? Every M7 business school declined to participate in the ranking. Missing in action are Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, MIT Sloan, Booth and Kellogg. Their absence not only cleared the way for many of the best European MBA options; the M7 boycott also brought many U.S. schools that agreed to participate the highest ranks they have ever achieved on The Economist list.


The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business moved up a half dozen spots to finish third. New York University’s Stern School of Business jumped 13 places to rank fourth. Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller School of Business soared 18 spots to place fifth. The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business rose a dozen places to end up in eighth place, while Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business made up the most substantial ground, gaining 22 positions to claim tenth place.

Some of these gains were not only at the expense of the missing M7 programs. A slew of other highly prominent business schools walked away, including UC-Berkeley, UCLA Anderson Dartmouth Tuck, UVA Darden, Yale SOM, Duke Fuqua, Cornell Johnson, and USC Marshall. All of those schools had finished in the top 25 in 2019. In fact, 15 of the top 25 schools on The Economist‘s last ranking refused to play. Emory, Rice and Washington University also dropped out. The Economist soft pedals the revolt, noting only that “some well-known schools are missing” in its introduction to the new list. The schools that declined to cooperate with the ranking led Poets&Quants to use The Economist‘s previous list in calculating our new composite ranking of the top programs.

Skeptics are sure to say that the lack of competition from the top-tier players renders this ranking less valuable. But on some level, the decision by some of the biggest brands in MBA education not to play has shined a bright light on many excellent MBA experiences that are as good if not better than the programs that sat this ranking out. More international applicants than ever are applying to the top European schools so the increased spotlight on those more global options is a welcome development.

Meantime, many U.S. schools with excellent MBA programs have long been under appreciated in rankings. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, which has offered a superb MBA for many years, is a good example. Carlson’s MBA program surged 28 places to rank 11th. The University of Wisconsin’s MBA program climbed 27 spots to finish 19th. The University of Rochester’s Simon Business School jumped 32 spots to end up ranking 25th.


The Economist‘s annual MBA rankings are often topsy-turvy, with many schools rising and falling in double-digits every year. But this 2021 version wins the roller-coaster rankings race by a long shot. Some 20 of the top-ranked 25 schools saw their positions improve by 12 or more places. Overall, 85% of the returning schools on this year’s list–60 out of 71–saw their ranks rise by double-digits. Of the 90 ranked MBA programs, 19 business schools are either new to the ranking or have made return trips.

Many of the swings were mind-boggling. The full-time MBA program at North Carolina State University rocketed up 57 places to rank 38th best in the world. Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business advanced 41 spots to gain 31st place. George Washington University’s MBA improved by 40 spots to finish at a rank of 45th. A dozen schools, in fact, had rank changes of 30 positions or more in their year-over-year standings (see table below). As a result, a less-informed applicant who consults the ranking could be led to poor choices and conclusions.

And for just about every school, with the exception of only two, rankings were up. Only the University of Melbourne’s Business School and the Cranfield School of Management in the U.K. slipped: Melbourne by six places to 34th and Cranfield by one to 60th. So this is one of the few rankings ever when most schools have overwhelmingly positive news to report to their students and alumni.


While there is little surprise that a European school would top the list this year, IESE’s rise to first is somewhat unexpected. But INSEAD and London Business School, which tend not to fare all that well on The Economist‘s ranking, both bowed out. Last year INSEAD finished 22nd, while London placed 25th. HEC Paris, which was third in 2019, clearly had the edge to top the list when the M7 walked. But IESE, the predominant case study MBA school in Europe, made significant gains to win the big prize.

It was only the fifth time in 17 years that a European school has topped The Economist ranking. The last time was in 2009 when IMD was number one. IESE Business School earned top honors in the British magazine’s ranking in 2009, 2006 and 2005 so this is the fourth No. 1 win for the school. IESE’s program scored well for the post-graduate salary of its MBA alumni, and for the new career opportunities that are opened up for graduates after getting their MBAs. Some 96% of IESE’s MBA Class of 2019 received a job offer within three months of graduation.

“At IESE, our focus is on creating a transformational educational experience for students, one where they get stretched and challenged both in and outside the classroom,” says Marc Badia, associate dean for MBA programs at IESE. “This result is a confirmation of our ability to maintain the highest standards across all aspects of our MBA. It takes a tremendous team effort to make the MBA so transformational for students, and it’s great to see that recognized.”

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