The Ten Biggest Surprises In The Financial Times 2021 Global MBA Ranking

3) So Much For The Boycott

The single biggest surprise of this year’s FT ranking has nothing to do with where one MBA program ranks over another. The big surprise is how quickly a business school rankings boycott crumbled. It started back in April of last year when the Graduate Management Admissions Council and two accreditation agencies–AACSB and EFMD–issued a public call for a pause in all rankings. They argued that the coronavirus pandemic had so thoroughly disrupted business education that schools could not possibly comply with the reporting requirements demanded by the likes of Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, the Financial Times, U.S. News & World Report, and Forbes.

Besides, the argument went, the pandemic would upend all the statistics used by these organizations to rank the programs. Admission and career outcome metrics would be distorted in ways that would make them less useful to applicants. Bloomberg Businessweek was the first to cave and pause its annual MBA rankings. But every other organization decided to move forward, including The Economist which delayed publication by two-and-one-half months to put together its list.

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 as the pandemic has lingered, all the schools have adjusted to a new normal of safety protocols and hybrid classes. Schools have published new class profiles and employment reports, the source of many of the stats used by ranking organizations. If anything, the administrators and students who fill out these surveys have more time on their hands than ever before.

Truth is, this was a revolt long in the making. At least one prominent MBA admissions consultant has suggested that it was an organized protest, that many of the school secretly conspired together in an attempt to force The Economist to do what Businessweek did. 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.

The boycott clearly hurt The Economist. Every M7 business school declined to participate in the ranking. INSEAD, London Business School, CEIBs, Cambridge and Oxford sat the ranking out. 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 U.S. 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.

But it was easier to spurn The Economist which has a reputation as the most quirky of all the five most influential MBA rankings. It was another matter entirely to skip out on the Financial Times, the most consulted global MBA ranking and second only to the American-centric U.S. News & World Report for being the most important. The FT list has been more instrumental than any other factor in the massive rise in prestige and reputation for MBA programs outside the U.S. It newspaper was the first to acknowledge that the world is not the U.S., that there was and is an increasing number of schools in other parts of the world that offer world-class business education.

Sure enough, even the M7 couldn’t hang together. Both Chicago Booth and Northwestern Kellogg broke ranks with their M7 peers to join the Financial Times party. So did all of the major business schools outside the U.S. in Europe, Asia, Canada, and elsewhere. The result of this change of heart by most schools? It makes the few coastal elites that sat this ranking out seem incredibly petty and arrogant in their steadfast refusal to compete on the world stage.

The high level of participation in the FT ranking bodes well for this year’s U.S. News list. After considering a request to postpone its MBA ranking due to the pandemic, U.S. News & World Report decided in October to move ahead with its annual list that would come out in March. U.S. News would clearly have more leverage because its ranking is the most read and watched list of U.S. MBA programs. Last year, in fact, Harvard Business School surveyed its MBA students to see which rankings mattered most to them. U.S. News came out on top. Some 74% of the responding HBS students said they consulted the U.S. News list while applying to business school, while 46% said the publication’s rankings influenced their school choices.

That should be reason enough to participate with U.S. News.

4) American Muscle, American Hustle

The Americans tanked the FT rankings. Be it complacency or cockiness, the 2021 ranking obviously lacks some star power. That doesn’t mean the supporting players didn’t step up. In fact, several second-tier MBA programs made double-digit jumps that reflect major improvements across various dimensions.

Take Michigan State’s Broad College of Business, which made the year’s flashiest debut at #43. The college earned its spot through outcomes. Graduates watched their earnings improve by 172% from enrollment, the 5th largest improvement of any MBA program. Broad also ranked in the Top 20 for value for the money and overall satisfaction. This formula – higher pay and student satisfaction – is certain to keep the Broad College in the conversation for years to come.

The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School also produced a year to remember, rankings-wise. It nearly broke into the Top 25, rising 13 spots to reach #26. Notably, the school posted improvements in graduate pay and its alumni recommendation score. One area to watch, however, is career services, a rank where Kenan-Flagler has fallen from 9th to 29th over the past two years. The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business actually made an even bigger leap: 47th to 28th. MBA pay climbed from $143,074 to $146,191. The school also received higher alumni scores in career progress (98th to 68th), career services (58th to 29th), and alumni recommendations (50th to 25th).

Those aren’t the only American programs punching above their weight in 2021.  Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management moved from 45th to 31st, thanks to being home to the 4th highest-ranked career services center according to survey respondents. By the same token, Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business rocketed from 57th to 32nd. Here, alumni saw their weighted pay jump from $149,332 to $161,156 over the past year.  UC Irvine’s Merage School of Business nearly matched Rice’s big jump, going from 65th to 42nd.

How is this for a surreal result? The University of Florida became the top MBA program for value for money and career services – and still couldn’t move up from its #40 rank!

Yes, American MBA programs improved their standing overall in 2021 – and could bring some new names into the Top 25 next year if they continue their march forward.

IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, has emerged as a true powerhouse

5) IESE Emerges As A True Force

In some corners, the IESE Business School was treated as a spent force. Formed in the academically-demanding and case-driven image of Harvard Business School, IESE sat atop The Economist MBA ranking for three years in 2009, 2006, and 2005. Since then, the program has become a runner-up to HEC Paris among continental programs. In The Financial Times, IESE lagged far behind INSEAD, London Business School, HEC Paris, and CEIBS among non-American programs.

That all changed in 2021.

With The Economist, IESE raced 10 spots to claim the #1 spot. Alumni and student sentiment certainly favored the school. In surveys conducted by The Economist, IESE earned the highest scores among survey respondents for culture and classmates, program content, and overseas study programs. On top of that, the school ranked #5 for faculty quality. Oh, and IESE ranked #5 for post-MBA pay. Sure enough, IESE played to these strengths with The Financial Times.

Spoiler Alert: IESE ranked #4 in the world. That might be considered a come down in some respects. After all, it still ranked behind INSEAD and the London Business School. That said, IESE scored a 9.84 when surveyed alumni were asked to rate their overall level of satisfaction on a 10-point scale. To put that number in context, it was over .50 of a point above INSEAD, LBS, and HEC Paris.

What is the appeal of the program? Connie Melgarejo, a 2020 P&Q Best & Brightest MBA, is a second generation IESE grad. Her father earned his MBA there in 2001. Let’s just say Melgarejo enjoyed a front row seat for what an IESE MBA delivered. In her experience, the program excelled in a variety of dimensions, particularly in what she called “creating a very personal experience.”

“The use of the case method ensures that every single student at IESE isn’t there just to learn but also becomes an integral part of the teaching experience. The diversity of the class, composed of students from all parts of the world and walks of life means that each one of us has something unique to contribute to the class and we have an opportunity to make our voice heard and share our experiences. Additionally, despite the 700+ students in the full-time MBA program, all members of the cafeteria know the students by name and, in some cases, even know their regular order! For me, this showed how the members of IESE’s community are uniquely valued and create a strong sense of belonging.”

Louis Williams, who earned his MBA at IESE a year before Melgarejo, hypes a different aspect of the iESE experience. “Honestly, I can think of only a few places in the world as incredible to live in as Barcelona. You have sun, beach, mountains for skiing and cycling: a broad selection of bars and restaurants at 60% of the cost of London. It is a historic architectural center, connected by an incredible public transportation system with an interwoven quilt of cultures: Spanish, Catalan, Latin and International. And that ignores the fact that Barcelona is one of the nightlife capitals of the world.”

IESE also performs well across the board. It ranked #5 for career progress, a measure of alumni levels of seniority in larger companies. Not surprisingly, IESE’s career services center placed #11 for effectiveness according to alumni surveyed. At the same time, IESE holds the #1 spot for corporate social responsibility, defined by The Financial Times as the “proportion of teaching hours from core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues.”

In other words, IESE has the fundamentals down pat…except maybe for weighted MBA pay, where it ranked 13th among the Top 15 programs (and $33,500 below leader Chicago Booth). Still, IESE tops all contenders in the most important benchmark: customer satisfaction. In the future, that means alumni who are happy to open doors – and checkbooks – for the students who follow in their footsteps.

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