Harvard Tops The List Of This Fortune MBA Ranking You Should Ignore

After a disastrous debut of an MBA ranking last year, Fortune is at it again with an updated list of the top U.S. full-time MBA programs. Even more astounding than its initial launch, the old media business brand doesn’t even bother to explain how it is ranking MBA programs. Fortune‘s three-paragraph article on the “methodology” is among the vaguest and most opaque explanations ever published by a ranking organization (see below for what it’s worth).

And completely missing from the ranking are four schools whose MBA programs are routinely among the Top 25 in the U.S.: Michigan Ross, Carnegie Mellon Tepper, USC Marshall, and Emory Goizueta. No explanation is given for their absence. Perhaps they declined to fill out the form Fortune sent to schools for data that would already be a year old and out of date. The editors could have pulled this data from the websites of these schools because all of it is publicly available. For whatever reason, they chose not to bother.

Yet, you’ll find Fortune declaring Appalachian State in North Carolina, Louisiana Tech, and Morgan State in Maryland among the very best MBA programs in the U.S. No less annoying are the intrusive ads for online MBA programs from 2U that litter the ranking list itself. What the reader gets from this exercise is a sloppy, poorly thought-out and warmed-over approach which seeks to forestall criticism by keeping the methodology opaque.

Henry Luce, the legendary American magazine magnate who founded Fortune, should be turning over in his grave at the embarrassment.


The new Fortune list will give more ammunition to critics of these lists who have long argued that rankings are meaningless clickbait contests that are out of control. The Economist succumbed to that criticism earlier this year by abandoning the business school rankings game altogether. Forbes has failed to publish its ranking in the past three years. And Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent list has been attacked as severely flawed yet again.

By Fortune‘s reckoning, Harvard Business School’s MBA program tops the list, followed by Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, Wharton, and finally Stanford. Columbia Business School’s MBA is sixth, NYU Stern is seventh, Duke Fuqua is eighth, MIT Sloan ranks ninth, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is tenth.

Yale and Berkeley, respectively ranked 12th and 13th by Fortune, are not in the Top 10. The biggest gainer in the Top 25 is Howard University with an MBA program now ranked 24th best, up six spots from last year, while the program that lost the most ground in the Top 25 is Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, which fell six places to rank 25th.


What’s behind any of these changes, or for that matter, the rank order of the business schools? It is impossible to tell because Fortune seems to go out of its way to prevent readers from understanding how it ranks programs. Here is the entire description of its so-called methodology:

MBA programs remain one of the most promising ways to earn a high salary and land a job at a top company. More than 90% of corporate recruiters say they expect to hire new MBA graduates in 2022, according to a report by the Graduate Management Admission Council. Additionally, the median salary for MBA grads continues to climb, with half of the business schools participating in Fortune’s Best MBA ranking reporting median salaries of $110,000 or more. 

Whether it be to open doors for job opportunities, increase salary potential, accelerate career path, or gain a valuable network of peers—a strong majority of MBA graduates say the time and effort put into their degree is worth it. But as the business landscape changes, which schools are the leaders in preparing the next generation of managers? 

To answer this question, for the second year in a row, Fortune is launching its ranking of the best full-time MBA programs in the country. In total, we ranked 76 MBA programs. In our methodology, we not only considered data provided by schools via questionnaires and each business school’s brand, but also each school’s role in propelling MBA graduates into the C-suite of top companies.


That’s it. In the absence of a real methodology, you are left to assume that Fortune used the same methodology it employed last year. Then and most likely now, Fortune puts 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. Last year, 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.

Just as oddly, Fortune equally weighted median and mean salaries for each program. This is presumably an effort to mitigate the sensitivity of the mean to outliers in the salary distribution, but the simple fix is to use the median instead of the mean.  Taking the average of the mean and the median is a ridiculous idea, and it suggests that Fortune did not consult any statisticians in concocting the methodology.

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 to 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. If Fortune considers base salary is relevant, why isn’t the bonus? 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.


Fortune also uses the three-month employment rate based on MBA Career Services and Employer Alliance standard, which has long been known to contain a truck-sized loophole. The standard allows for up to 15% of the graduating class to be in the ‘no report’ category, excluded from the employment rate calculation.  It is unconscionable for a school to not know the job status of any of its graduating students, let alone 15% of the class, especially because this group is likely to have a high proportion of students who are still looking for jobs and have given up responding to the school’s career services because they find the career services to be of no help. While the MBA CSEA standard permits it, a ranking methodology could easily create a penalty for no-reports, as the Financial Times does.

The other two final metrics employed by Fortune last year and presumably this time around would naturally favor elite schools that boast large graduating classes, putting smaller high-quality MBA programs at a disadvantage. An adjustment to this data would have been easy to do (and is still worth doing) because each school can easily provide a count of their living alumni population.

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.

So if you consult this ranking, do so with a very big grain of salt.

(See the following page for ranking and year-over-year changes)

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