The 10 Biggest Surprises In The Economist’s Strange 2021 MBA Ranking

The Economist‘s newest MBA ranking, published on Thursday, is the strangest list of the best business schools ever to be published. With every ranking in every year, business school deans are likely to call foul. But never before have they had better reason to do so.

How can a media organization with the stellar reputation of The Economist, one of the true affinity media brands in the world, bring to market a ranking that excludes Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, INSEAD, London Business School and more than a dozen other schools whose MBA programs are undisputed world class leaders?

First, the facts. Some 15 of the schools that had been ranked among the top 25 by The Economist little more than a year ago declined to cooperate with this year’s ranking. Their revolt was led by the Graduate Management Admission Council which called on all ranking organizations to suspend their lists during COVID. The primary argument against participation was that disruptions caused by COVID would lead to unusual distortions in key admissions and employment metrics typically used in rankings.


There’s no doubt that the pandemic has had an impact on those statistics: Applications are up. GMAT scores are down. MBA salaries have reached record levels. Employment stats have fallen. But the changes have mostly been positive and have been across the board. Some schools have weathered the crisis better than others, for sure. And many schools simply did not want to burden their students with ranking surveys when they were coping with the impact of the pandemic.

The revolt was deep. Some 49 schools either declined to play or were deemed ineligible out of the 165 schools invited to participate. They included a broad range of schools from China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, widely considered the best business school in China, to Imperial College in London.  Another 13 schools, including Cornell, Dartmouth and Duke, refused to send The Economist‘s survey to their students and alumni.

Truth is, however, this was a revolt long in the making. COVID became a convenient excuse for it. B-school deans have always had a love/hate relationship with rankings. They love it when their programs are ranked highly, and they hate it when their programs fare poorly. After all, when rankings fall, application volume typically plunges with it. So does student satisfaction, employer choices, alumni donations and even a school’s ability to recruit the best faculty. Besides, all of the ranking schemes are less-than-ideal assessments of a school’s academic offerings. The methodologies to crank these lists out are often mindless and statistically meaningless. So there is certainly reason for frustration, if not anger, over such rankings.

Nonetheless, they are here to stay. The public’s interest in them is exceptionally high. It’s a rare applicant who does not consult at least one or more program rankings to help them narrow down their options for graduate school. And rankings, however flawed, represent a third-party assessment of a school’s quality that has more credibility than the hyperbolic marketing language often employed by schools on their slick websites and fancy brochures. The editors at The Economist note that when they contacted schools in May to ask if they still wanted to take part in the ranking, the vast majority were in favor of participating.


So we salute The Economist for moving ahead with its ranking when it could have easily taken the pause requested by GMAC and other business school organizations. Bloomberg Businessweek caved in to the demands. The Economist wasn’t going to be dissuaded from its annual exercise.

To accommodate this unusual time, the British magazine delayed its data collection to allow schools more time to participate. And yet, nearly two dozen of the schools with the best MBA programs in the world still chose not to play ball. They cleared the field, unwilling to compete despite what they teach about a market economy. Most of the highly rated business schools, however, shrewdly gambled that it was worth the effort.

So with those reservations in mind, here are the ten biggest insights and surprises in this year’s ranking from The Economist:

1) Can Anyone Take This Ranking Seriously?

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first.

The central question, of course, is whether anyone can take this year’s Economist ranking seriously? While the list is not representative of the best MBA programs in the world, which it is effectively advertised as, it does shine a bright light on many well-deserving MBA experiences that might otherwise be overlooked in a more typical year. And many of these programs are as good or better than those at the schools that walked. Frankly, that is a Godsend, a true service to applicants who find themselves routinely rejected by institutions that highly weight elitist credentials in their admission policies. Where you did your undergrad studies and who currently employs you are important factors in MBA admissions that often favor the elite and the advantaged.

As Matt Turner, a market researcher and close watcher of rankings at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, notes: “The Economist 2021 MBA ranking is a cogent reminder that rankings are by nature relative. They take their meaning only in relation to others in the pool to which they are being compared.  So if you remove 22 schools from the pool,  you can expect a different outlook, especially given that over half of those missing this year were previously at top-20 rank.” He believes that schools will ultimately come back. “I think this may be a one- or two-year anomaly, depending on when we get beyond the pandemic,” he adds.

That said, the highest ranked European and U.S. schools on this unusual list offer world class MBAs. No. 1 IESE Business School and No. 2 HEC Paris have outstanding MBA programs. No 3 Michigan Ross and No. 4 NYU Stern are without question among the sparkling jewels in graduate management education. It’s about time that these schools, long overshadowed by other players, have their day in the sun.

What happens when daddy comes back? For at least a year or more, these schools and other programs that improved their standing on The Economist‘s list can leverage a ranking from a magazine that students and faculty alike proudly carry under their arms as a status symbol of sorts. The reputational lift from being higher ranked should result in greater interest in their MBA programs and more qualified applicants who will want to take advantage of these excellent academic experiences. The flurry of new releases that have been rushed out by many schools, from Rochester Simon and Michigan State to IESE and Arizona State, only tout their school’s ranking achievements–not the fact that the competitive field had changed dramatically.

In the end, COVID didn’t kill The Economist ranking. It opened applicants’ eyes to a broader and deeper selection of schools from which to choose.

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