Hidden MBA Gems: Under-The-Radar MBA Options To Put On Your Radar

These are the hidden gems of full-time MBA programs in the U.S. from the Financial Times ranking

One of the things we hate about MBA rankings is that they put undue influence on a few schools that tend to be at the top of the list. Truth is, every MBA program that makes a Top 100 ranking is part of a highly select group of superior business schools in the world. Those 100 programs are a mere fraction of the totality of MBA options. Put another way, these schools are the best of the best, whether a program ranks 41st or 89th.

Yet, with every publication of a ranking, even those that muscle their way onto these lists can be overlooked and under-appreciated. Our goal here is to shine a light on other highly valuable MBA programs that for an individual candidate could be just as valuable as an MBA from a Harvard or a Columbia.

To surface some of the best, we’ve parsed the newest 2021 Financial Times global MBA ranking to discover what we call the hidden MBA gems, the under-the-radar schools that you would want be wise to put on your radar. Most of these options are at schools outside the Top 25 which gets plenty of attention to begin with, though there are a few Top 25 winners worth your serious consideration. By and large, these programs tend to have smaller, more intimate MBA cohorts. And that means you won’t get lost in an oversized class and are likely to receive much more individual attention.


While year-over-year changes can be meaningful, how a school’s MBA program performs over a five-year timeline can tell you a lot more about the school’s momentum. No less crucial, a longer-term look at performance sheds light on programs that tend to be under-appreciated and under-the-radar.

At the tippy top of this list is Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis. In the past five years, the newly revamped MBA program there–our MBA Program of the Year in 2020–has risen 55 places to rank in the Top 25 for the4 first time ever in the Financial Times ranking. This is not a fluke. The school in the midwest has done more to globalize its MBA experience than any other U.S. MBA program in the past five years.

At the heart of the new Olin program is a required global immersion that takes the entire class of newly arrived students on a 38-day, round-the-world learning experience that first debuted in Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Shanghai, China. To pull it off, the school required some faculty and all the students to show up for the program a semester early in late June. What’s more, Olin did not increase its MBA tuition to pay for the immersion or the extra semester. Instead, the school ate all the costs, flying students to the three locales, putting them up in hotels, feeding them, and arranging meaningful coursework, assignments and projects in each location. The pandemic obviously forced changes on this ambitious immersion, though they will not be permanent.


Olin’s new global focus led to the highest yield in a decade as 43% of admitted applicants enrolled. It also allowed the school to burnish its reputation for diversity and inclusiveness. The 2019 incoming class boasted the highest level of gender parity (49% women) in the world as recognized by the Forté Foundation, record-high levels of underrepresented minorities and, for the entire class, a rich representation of international students.

What really helped seal the deal for Olin in this year’s Financial Times ranking was its superb ever-improving record of academic research. The FT’s calculations of published scholarly works by Olin’s faculty bested every other school in the world. The school went from ninth place last year in research to first. Not surprisingly, Dean Mark Taylor has emphasized research in the school by raising research allowances, increasing the number of funded PhD places as well as raising PhD stipends, and rewarding research performance.

Taylor smartly moved from the common practice of filling faculty vacancies solely with rookies and encouraged faculty to seek out mid-career established faculty to join us. The strategy has paid dividends, with faculty research output in quality journals at an all-time high, and many leading scholars joining the school, including a pair of full professors from UC Berkeley last year.


But that’s just part of the story at one school. Would-be applicants also would be wise to notice the big gains racked up by Babson College’s Olin Graduate School of Business, Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business and Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, all up 40 or more places in the past five years. Or Georgetown, Connecticut, and Rochester, all up by 25 or more spots since 2016. Or, for that matter, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Washington Foster and Boston University, up by 20 or more places (see table below).


When you look more closely at how these schools fare on the Financial Times‘ individual metrics, you find some interesting outcomes. Several of these MBA programs achieved employment rates three months after graduation that were better than the highest ranked U.S. school,  Chicago Booth, or INSEAD, the big winner in the FT ranking in 2021. In fact, the University of Connecticut, Michigan State, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Washington in Seattle all boast 100% employment rates this past year (see table below)

And the salary increases experienced by their alums three years out of school can often be above what you would find at an M7 business school. At Michigan State, for example, MBA grads were able to gain salary jumps of 172% over their pre-MBA pay. Compare that with the 96% increase for INSEAD alums or the 102% increase for MBAs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

You also might be surprised that the overall satisfaction of MBA alumni with their programs can often be higher. Among these hidden gems, the best alumni satisfaction score was 9.5 or better on a ten-point scale at both Penn State and the University of Washington. That’s better than Cambridge or Oxford and equal to Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Of course, some of the schools perform poorly on a few of these measures. The University of Connecticut’s Business School is a good example. In overall satisfaction, alums gave it the lowest score of any Top 100 program: A miserable 7.0 when the median score for satisfaction is 9.03.


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