Ten Biggest Surprises In U.S. News’ 2021 MBA Ranking

Another year. Another U.S. News ranking. Right?

Not really. From a raging pandemic that has upended life in every way to a contentious and divisive U.S. election, this past year has been like no other. Both of those issues have had a major impact on business education. COVID not only forced most classes for MBAs online; it also unleashed an explosion in applications to business schools. The outcome of the election is helping to end a years long slide in international applicants to U.S. business schools.

This week’s newest U.S. News MBA ranking reflects some of these trends and, of course, contains its usual share of surprises and shocks. Who would ever rank Harvard Business School in fifth place? U.S. News, obviously. Why did only two big brand schools choose not to cooperate with the ranking when far greater numbers boycotted both  and the Financial Times lists? How is it possible that a school which announced that it would “pause” a money-losing MBA program, only to now find that it had the largest single rise in the new U.S. News ranking?

These are just a few of the big surprises associated with the 2021 MBA ranking from U.S. News. Here’s how those surprises stack up.

U.S. News has long been the most influential of all the MBA rankings

1) Why U.S. News Matters Most

When The Economist published its annual MBA ranking in January, two-and-one-half months late, every single M7 business school boycotted the list. Using the pandemic as an excuse to get a pass, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, MIT, Chicago Booth or Northwestern Kellogg all bowed out. Those M7 (Magnificent Seven) schools basically told The Economist to go fish. And they weren’t alone. 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.

When the Financial Times unveiled its new MBA ranking in February, participation improved but still was lacking. After all, 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. All told, nine major business schools that were ranked by the FT in 2020 did not provide data for its new list.

In both revolts, the decisions 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. Bloomberg Businessweek was the only one of the top five lists to suspend its ranking last year, but the boycott made both The Economist and Financial Times rankings less credible and authoritative.


U.S. News would only have two major holdouts: Wharton and MIT Sloan. And it wouldn’t let either off the hook. Instead of excluding the schools, the strategy followed by The Economist and the Financial Times, U.S. News instead included them using year-earlier data. If anything, the widespread cooperation that U.S. News gained is nothing less than a testament to the power and influence of its ranking. Time and time again, independent surveys have found that no other ranking has a greater impact on application volume, enrollment, alumni bragging rights and donations, and even a school’s ability to recruit the best faculty.

Only last year, in fact, Harvard Business School surveyed its own students and found that U.S. News is the most read and influential of all the MBA rankings by Harvard’s MBAs. In that survey, 74% of the responding students said they consulted the ranking while applying to business school, while 46% said the publication’s rankings influenced their school choices.

The findings confirm earlier surveys that have shown that at least in the United States, the U.S. Newsranking is the most read. A 2017 survey of MBA applicants and students by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC)  found U.S. News to be the most trusted ranking among Americans. The magazine’s lists were cited by nearly 80% of respondents as an influence on where they applied. Poets&Quants’ rankings drew over 60% of respondents as well. Overseas, nearly 70% of applicants listed the Financial Times as an influence, with U.S. & World Report and The Economist both named by slightly more than 40% of applicants.



The AIGAC survey also found that business school rankings were a key factor in choosing specific schools. Rankings finished second only to school reputation, though just by a 55%-to-54% margin (with respondents able to choose up to five options). Another intangible — school culture — ranked third at 41%, where it was tied by a more palpable consideration: city and geographic location. From there, more practical details, such as career impact, alumni network, academic focus, and career placement, held court. Despite the pricey tags attached to most top MBA programs, tuition and scholarship availability were cited by just 15% and 14% of respondents respectively.

And then there was an actual academic study that found U.S. News had the biggest impact and has shown greater reliability over and validity over the years. The research looked at full-time MBA rankings published by U.S. News, Businessweek and the Financial Times: 13 separates lists from BusinessWeek which began ranking schools in 1988 and has published updated rankings every two years; 15 rankings from The Financial Times, which began its list nearly ten years after BusinessWeek, and 27 lists from U.S. News & World Report which started rating MBA programs annually in 1987.

The number crunching by a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen School found that every rank improvement toward the top on U.S. News yielded an additional $908.03 more on average for the school’s graduates in their first post-MBA job, significantly more than BusinessWeek‘s $605.27 or The Financial Times‘ $377.58.

No wonder almost all the business schools fell in line when it came to U.S. News.

2) How Wharton & MIT Snookered U.S. News

Only two big brand MBA programs refused to cooperate with U.S. News’ ranking this year. That was quite a feat compared to what happened to The Economist and the Financial Times. Unlike those two rankings from British publications, however, U.S. News still chose to rank the two non-cooperating business schools: Wharton and MIT Sloan.

U.S. News got around the schools’ refusal to submit data by using year-earlier admissions and employment data to make the ranking as useful as possible to prospective students. But in doing so—instead of consulting already published class profiles and employment reports from Wharton and MIT—U.S. News unwittingly scored the schools’ MBA programs much higher than they deserved. Wharton took second place, while MIT took fifth.

The upshot: Both schools benefited from their boycott of U.S. News, at the expense of other peer schools, including Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School and possibly UC-Berkeley Haas.


Here’s how: Both Wharton and MIT, in common with many others that forked over the data, saw declines in several key metrics used by the magazine to rank MBA programs. Small differences in these measures can have a big impact on a school’s overall numerical rank because their overall index scores are clustered closely together. Only one point, for example separates Wharton from third-place Chicago Booth, while there’s just a two-point gap between Wharton and Northwestern Kellogg which finished fourth.

While slight changes can make big differences, some of the declines in Wharton’s metrics were dramatic. The school, for example, saw a ten-point decline in its average GMAT score to 722, the lowest class average at Wharton since 2012. Yet, Wharton was credited with its 732 average from a year earlier. The school’s GRE scores also were down—by two points—yet U.S. News again gave the school credit for its higher GRE scores.

Wharton’s admit rate was substantially higher than the 23.1% in 2019. Though Wharton declined to publish its acceptance rate for last year’s entering class, it was likely about 30%, seven percentage points higher. U.S. News also used the year-earlier numbers for MBA graduates from Wharton who were employed both at graduation and three months later. Instead of 93.5% within three months of commencement, the actual employment number is 91.6%.


In all probability, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg and Harvard Business School would have ranked higher than Wharton this year if U.S. News merely consulted the school’s published class profile and employment report and used estimates based on peer school numbers for data Wharton has not disclosed.

The same story applies to MIT’s Sloan School of Management which was tied with Harvard Business School for fifth place. U.S. News gave MIT credit for an average GMAT score of 727 when it had fallen to an estimated 722 based on the reported decline of its median numbers. Even the undergraduate grade point average for the class was lower than the 2019 number used by the magazine: it was 3.54 vs. the year-earlier 3.58. U.S. News also used the school’s year-earlier admit rate of 14.6% when MIT itself already disclosed that its acceptance rate soared last year to 22.0%, roughly a third higher.

The school’s decision not to play with U.S. News did hurt MIT in one way. The magazine reported the year-earlier average salary and bonus figure of $160,291. But the school’s employment report for the Class of 2020 shows that its graduates had a $10K improvement in base salaries so that the combined salary and bonus number came to $171,000 instead of $160,291. It’s possible that this increase would offset some of the drops in the school’s admission data.

Either way, Wharton and MIT would likely rank lower if they had cooperated with U.S. News.

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