INSEAD Tops New Financial Times MBA Ranking For The Third Time

A new top five in the 2021 Financial Times ranking: INSEAD, London Business School, Chicago Booth, IESE & Yale SOM

For the third time in 22 years, INSEAD has muscled its way to the very top of the Financial Times newest global MBA ranking. Europe’s premier one-year MBA experience moved up three places to claim top honors, followed by London Business School, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, IESE Business School in Spain and Yale’s School of Management, the latter two schools tied for fourth best in the world.

For the first time ever, the full-time MBA programs of three European schools were among the top five, a circumstance that occurred because three of the top five on last year’s FT ranking–Harvard, Wharton and Stanford–chose not to compete. In fact, the bigger news in the ranking may have nothing to do with the ranks of the MBA programs on the list but rather the return of the majority of prominent schools that had boycotted last month’s Economist ranking.

All told, 20 of the schools that had shunned The Economist cooperated with this ranking, including the Chicago Booth, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Yale, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business (see table on next page). Yale’s decision to play ball gained its MBA program the distinction of being ranked among the top five in the world for the first time ever. Yale rose 10 places from 14th, the only double-digit rise in the top ten. Some nine European schools came back as well, including INSEAD, London Business School, Cambridge and Oxford. And the best school in China, CEIBS, which walked away from The Economist, returned to be included in the Financial Times ranking. A total of 143 schools took part in the 2021 edition of the ranking, while roughly 6,570 from the class of 2017 completed the newspaper’s alumni surveys, a response rate of 44%.


Many of those schools were well rewarded for their cooperation. Almost all of them moved up substantially in the ranking, particularly in the Top 25 where year-over-year changes tend to be incremental. In fact, 23 of the highest ranked 25 programs registered advances. IESE Business School rose nine places to earn its rank of fourth. Both Duke Fuqua and UVA Darden improved seven places each to finish ninth and 11th, respectively. Washington University’s Olin School soared 19 places to rank 25th in the world, its highest FT ranking ever. Five years ago, the school’s MBA program ranked 80th on the FT list. Georgetown University’s McDonough School moved up 14 places to rank 17th, and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School gained 12 spots to finish in 24th place.

Still another set of exceptional MBA programs had modest, though important, ranking gains. Kellogg rose five places to rank sixth, and Dartmouth Tuck jumped a half dozen spots to finish tenth. Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management moved up eight places to rank 14th, while the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business improved by nine spots to rank 21st in the world.

Even so, any ranking without the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT Sloan and Columbia Business School–five of the M7 schools–is going to be somewhat lacking. Their decision to bow out occurred after the Graduate Management Admission Council, the administrator of the GMAT, and two accreditation agencies asked ranking organizations last April to pause their lists due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus. The FT reported that only nine business schools which were ranked in 2020 did not provide data for the 2021 ranking.

The Financial Times celebrated the participants. “Most institutions supported the argument that continuity, transparency and accountability in business education were more important than ever,” wrote the FT‘s Andrew Jack. “With competition intensifying, they recognized the need to help students, recruiters and academics alike to benchmark and differentiate between different MBA programs.”


Bloomberg Businessweek was the only one of the top five lists to suspend its ranking last year. Some schools saw the pandemic as justification to walk away from The Economist and now the Financial Times but all the schools have long had a love/hate relationships with the lists.  “Business schools have long expressed a rankings fatigue, and beyond the five major MBA rankings they are solicited by many other national and regional publications,” notes Matt Symonds, co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, a top MBA admissions consulting firm.

“I respect a school’s individual decision not to participate in a ranking, but when so many schools have made the effort to respond and just a tight circle of the top U.S. business schools have convened not to it seems contrived. We aspire to educate leaders not oligarchs. Rankings are a limited snapshot of course, but still provide valuable insights and data for applicants. I wonder how the students and alumni of the absent schools feel about the decision?”

Year-over-year volatility is always an issue with rankings, even when there are no material changes in the MBA programs. This year’s FT list is full of roller-coaster rides for many schools. Some 46% of the MBA programs that returned on the list, 36 of 78, experienced double-digit changes in ranks. Last year, 30% of the schools had double-digit increases and decreases. The vast majority of this year’s changes were positive, with 29 schools moving up in double-digits and only seven seeing double-digit declines. Plus, there were 22 MBA programs on the FT 100 list that were not on last year’s ranking.


The biggest winners this year? U.S. business schools did especially well. The most improved rankings went to Rice University, up 25 places to finish 32nd, UC-Irvine Merage, up 23 spots to rank 42nd, the University of Maryland’s Smith School, up 21 places to finish in 52nd place. Hong Kong University made the single biggest advance of any MBA program on the FT ranking: Soaring 27 places to rank 29th from 56th last year.

And the schools that lost ground on the list? The biggest losers were two MBA programs both in Shanghai. Shanghai University of Finance and Economics plunged 17 places to rank 64th, while Shanghai Jiao Tong University fell 16 spots to place 53rd. Only one U.S. MBA program saw its ranking fall in double digits: Notre Dame University’s Mendoza College of Business dropped 12 places to rank 69th.

INSEAD’S rise to the top in the FT ranking is not all that unusual. The school had won the top prize before, as recently as 2017 and 2016, even when the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Wharton fully cooperated with the ranking. “INSEAD has often done well in the FT ranking as has London Business School, so their positions this year don’t look out of place,” says Caroline Diarte-Edwards, who formerly headed MBA admissions at INSEAD before co-founding Fortuna. “It’s a shame for the publisher when major schools pull out, and it’s true that the ranking overall looks a little odd, with the glaring absence of such heavyweight schools.

“Nevertheless, I think that INSEAD and LBS can still celebrate their achievement; I know that the schools’ staff have been putting in a superhuman effort over the past year to support their students and alumni through such difficult times, and they should rightfully feel proud that this effort has paid off. Of course many of the fundamentals underlying the data in the ranking are the result of consistent, long-term efforts over many years on diversity, and and research, and this speaks to the strong, steady leadership at these schools.”

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