Fortune Debuts A New MBA Ranking: Guess Who’s On Top?

An early cover of Fortune magazine

You’ll find little surprise in the top three business schools in today’s ranking of the best full-time MBA programs from Fortune: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, in that order. Rounding out the top five are No. 4 Chicago Booth and No. 5 Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

This is Fortune magazine’s first full-time MBA ranking, having published its first ranking of online MBA programs back on April 28. It comes a full 33 years after Businessweek launched the first of the regularly published MBA rankings in 1988. Coming late to the party in an already crowded field with U.S. News, the Financial Times, Bloomberg BusinessweekThe Economist, Forbes and Poets&Quants, the big question is what, if anything, does Fortune add to the rankings game?

Not all that much. The ranking is based on year-old data, including salary and placement stats for the Class of 2020. The new list is entirely U.S. centric, without a single MBA option outside the country. All of the published admissions data, which was not used in the ranking, is also a year old. Four business schools that are always in Top 25 U.S. MBA lists apparently declined to cooperate with Fortune so they are missing from the ranking: the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business. Fortune says only 69 of the roughly 100 traditional full-time MBA programs invited to participate completed their questionnaires.

Ultimately, you have to wonder how useful a ranking can be when Lindenwood University, which admits 93% of its applicants, is ranked by Fortune as one of the country’s best MBA programs, while perennial high status players like Michigan, UCLA, USC Marshall and Emory don’t make the ranking at all, even though Fortune could have included them if it only bothered to pull pay and placement data from the schools’ employment reports of a year ago. After all, that salary and job info is the only school-provided data Fortune uses for the ranking. A few minutes of reporting work would have made a big difference to this ranking.


The usual triumvirate at the top is a reflection of the simple methodology and the heavy emphasis on pay. Fortune put a 65% weight on starting salaries–both mean and median–without sign-on bonuses or other guaranteed comp and job placement rates three months after graduation. The magazine did not disclose the precise weights for any one of these three metrics nor did it adjust salary data for either industry choice or geography.

A ranking that counts pay and placement to the tune of 65% is putting far too much emphasis on compensation–and in this case, merely base salaries. That kind of weight is nearly double the importance assigned to pay and placement by U.S. News and Bloomberg Businessweek. It is nearly triple the emphasis in The Economist‘s ranking, and considerably more than The Financial Times which assigns a 42% weight on those measures. The percentages, however, only get at some of the difference because other rankings have a more inclusive assessment of pay. U.S. News calculates sign-on bonuses and the percentage of graduates who get them. Businessweek does that but also adds in what alumni of a school’s program make. The Economist measures salary increases as well as base salaries for alumni. And the Financial Times also looks at salary increases, adjusting all the pay numbers by purchasing parity and for variations of pay between industries.

The other two final metrics employed by Fortune would naturally favor elite schools that boast large graduating classes, putting smaller high quality MBA programs at a disadvantage. A so-called “brand survey” supplemented by interviews of “thousands of business professionals and hiring managers” accounted for 25% of the ranking. The professionals had to know “at least two of the schools” for their votes to count, making this “brand survey” little more than a popularity contest with no adjustment when a respondent simply names his or her own alma mater. The remaining 10% weight reflected the number of each school’s MBA alumni who are C-suite executives at Fortune 1000 companies, a metric that favors old-school notions of size and largely ignores the most dynamic part of the economy as well as the largest employers of MBAs, the consulting industry.

That methodology does yield a few surprises. Texas A&M’s full-time MBA makes Fortune‘s Top 25 ranking in exactly 25th place, 13 spots better than the school’s U.S. News ranking of 38th. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is ranked 23rd, a five place improvement over its U.S. News position. UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business failed to make Fortune‘s Top 10, instead placing 13th, six places below its U.S. News ranking of seventh place. Some observers also will be surprised that the ranking shows NYU’s Stern School of Business ahead of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Where the ranking gets a bit more peculiar is largely beyond the Top 25 programs. The decision by a large swath of high quality MBA programs not to cooperate with Fortune had a beneficial impact on those that completed the magazine’s surveys. Howard University’s MBA program rank from Fortune is 30, for example, well above its latest U.S. News rank of 64 or its Poets&Quants rank of 69 (see table on following page). UC-Davis’ Business School, meantime, was ranked 27th best, 26 places better than its U.S. News rank of 53. And the MBA program at the University of San Diego was given a rank of 50 by Fortune, compared to its U.S. News rank of 92, a difference of 42 places.


These distortions are inevitable when a large number of schools declined to cooperate with the ranking. Among those missing are Ohio State, Boston College, Washington University in St. Louis, Rochester Simon, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Northeastern, South Carolina, SUNY Buffalo and Binghamton, Baruch College, and Baylor University.

Instead, the methodology opened the door to allow several full-time MBA programs that never or rarely make a Top 100 list to fall comfortably within Fortune‘s collection of 69 ranked full-time MBA programs. Clarkson University’s Reh School in Potsdam, N.Y., for example, is ranked 57th with just 30 students and an 81% admit rate. Appalachian State University’s Walker School in Boone, N.C., is ranked 66th, with just 68 students and an 85% acceptance rate. And Lindenwood University’s business school in St. Charles, Mo., comes in at a rank of 69th with a 93% admit rate.

Almost all the participating schools in the second half of the list gained an uplift in their rankings largely due to the absence of other peer schools. One exception: The University of Alabama’s Manderson Graduate School of Business. Fortune ranked its full-time MBA program 14 places below U.S. News. The reason: Fortune‘s heavy reliance on starting salaries which are lower in Alabama and the rest of the south (see The Five Biggest Surprises In Fortune’s Debut MBA Ranking).


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