You don’t have to look very hard to find some rather surprising outcomes in the Financial Times 2023 MBA ranking. For one thing, the most significant changes to its methodology caused major volatility in program ranks. Then, in over 25 years worth of rankings, there’s a new first-time winner in Columbia Business School. And also for the very first time, one of the most prominent business schools in the world–the Wharton School–failed to make the ranking because not enough alumni would respond to the FT‘s surveys.
But beyond those obvious surprises, there are a number of other head-scratching results. And more importantly, a number of insights one can draw from the new ranking that are far less obvious yet more condequential. The single most important metric collected by the Financial Times in the past three years, for example, is not even used in the ranking calculation. That is overall alumni satisfaction with their MBA experience. Which schools over the past five years have the most forward momentum and which schools are simply slip, slipping away?
Here are to our way of thinking ten of the biggest surprises in the Financial Times 2023 MBA ranking:
1) Columbia Business School Gets Its Due
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Financial Times MBA ranking. Ever since its launch in 1999, 11 years after Businessweek began ranking MBA programs and 10 years after U.S. News got into the act, Columbia Business School has never been No. 1.
Until now. For the first time ever, CBS has emerged as the top MBA program in the world, according to the Financial Times. It’s a long overdue recognition for a world-class school that is in the heart of a city that is at the center of the universe. CBS did not have far to travel to take over the top spot. The school’s full-time MBA program, with two entry points in August and January, ranked second last year. No less important, Columbia’s MBA program has ranked in the Top Five for 16 of 24 years worth of FT rankings and had been in second place on three occasions in 1999, 2007, and last year.
The school has long attracted some of the world’s best and brightest. Last year, 6,177 candidates tried to get into CBS. The school ultimately enrolled 844 students in a dozen cohorts, with 629 students starting the program in August and 215 more in January. The class averaged a GMAT score of 729 and brought to the program five years of work experience. Some 51% of the newest class is made up of international citizens, while 44% are women. Those are all impressive stats for a mightily impressive MBA program.
Columbia gained its FT victory without getting either the top scores or the highest rank in any of the 21 metrics in the methodology but instead performing well across the board. The school’s average alumni salary three years after graduation was $226,359, being only Stanford ($248,669) and Harvard ($235,019). In fact, 12 of the 14 highest-paying MBAs are from U.S. business schools. Columbia’s faculty also earned the second-highest rank for published research, second among the 100 schools in the ranking after Harvard Business School. Those two data points alone account for 26% of the ranking’s weighting.
More importantly, though, Columbia is riding high on momentum. The school’s emergence at No. 1 comes in the immediate aftermath of the opening of a new modern campus in Manhattanville along with a new emphasis in the curriculum on climate change. At a cost of $600 million, Columbia can now lay claim to having the most expensive business school campus ever built. The new facilities have put Columbia at the forefront of business education. The impressive layer-cake buildings, outfitted with the latest technology, opened early last year and have dramatically increased the amount of interaction between students and the faculty.
We agree with the assessment by Michael Malone, the former associate dean of admissions at CBS who now works as an admissions consultant at Fortuna Admissions. Malone optimized the end-to-end student experience for Columbia’s full-time MBA program until 2020, including the class whose alumni were surveyed by the Financial Times.
“Seeing Columbia Business School at the top of this year’s FT ranking, which is renowned for its international and global focus, is absolutely wonderful,” he tells Poets&Quants. “CBS’ place in a global center for a range of industries has long attracted international students and premier faculty; with the highest percentage of international students of any top US business school, coupled with a near-perfect research ranking, it’s clear that Columbia continues to excel in its mission of attractinga diverse and international faculty and student body, support researching and teaching on global issues.
“The new buildings have certainly made a significant impact, not only in providing students and faculty with a state-of-the-art learning/teaching environment but also in reflecting Columbia’s prioritization of environmental responsibility. With the Business School’s LEED Gold Certification, it’s walking the talk of committing to sustainability.
“But a major factor in Columbia’s success this year seems linked to career mobility and outcomes. CBS ranked second among top large US schools in its graduates’ starting salary, and first among top large US schools in graduates’ percentage of salary increase. Combined with a strong post-graduation employment rate, these factors suggest that graduates are enjoying high-level returns on investment in an increasingly unpredictable market. Columbia has added to its traditional strengths in consulting and financial services by building stronger employment relationships in areas including e-commerce, fintech, and real estate. By diversifying career opportunities, Columbia can provide its graduates with what every MBA student wants most: choices.”
Congratulations CBS! You deserve it.
2) Where In The World Is Wharton? Not On This MBA Ranking
Over the quarter of a century that the Financial Times has ranked full-time MBA programs, the Wharton School has been a champion. It has captured more No. 1 rankings from the FT than any other school: 11 vs. second-place Harvard Business School which topped the ranking on seven occasions. Only last year, the Financial Times proclaimed Wharton the No. 1 MBA program in the world.
This year? Not so much. In fact, Wharton doesn't even merit a mention in the FT's editorial coverage. The school simply disappears off the list, no where to be found. The reason for Wharton's disappearance is mind-boggling: not enough alumni filled out the FT's survey so Wharton was tossed off the list.
That's despite the fact that the Financial Times' usual requirement for a response rate on the survey is a low bar to meet. Typically, the FT requires that a minimum of 20% of alumni reply to the survey, with at least 20 fully completed surveys. That relatively low hurdle rate was even made more liberal in this ranking. “This year, because of disruption from Covid, the FT considered schools with a lower response rate,” according to the FT.
The newspaper's editors don't disclose how low they allowed the response rate to go this year. Nevertheless, for a resource-rich school like Wharton, the fact that the school couldn't get less than 20% of its alumni to respond is pitiful. After all, the overall response rate on the FT‘s alumni survey this year was 36%.
And it wasn't as if Wharton didn't try. Here's the school's explanation: “On Tuesday, February 7th, 2023, the Financial Times (FT) informed Wharton that we would not be included in their forthcoming 2023 Global Full Time MBA ranking due to not reaching the threshold for alumni survey respondents for inclusion. To confirm, Wharton provided the requested School-level survey data, as well as alumni contact information for the specified years, in accordance with our data and privacy policies. We also continued our practice of allowing the FT to conduct all alumni outreach related to their ranking.”
So why did so few Wharton alums respond? The only plausible explanation is the school's perceived mishandling of the pandemic crisis. When COVID hit and Wharton shifted all in-person classes online, no school's MBAs reacted with more anger and frustration than the students at Wharton--and it should be said that no school's leadership fumbled the ball more than Wharton's administration.
When classes went online in 2020, many MBA students signed petitions asking for tuition refunds. The COVID petition with the most MBA signatures–1,083 or more than double the 473 at Harvard Business School–was at Wharton. The school’s students merely asked in the petition to “begin a dialogue regarding conditions under which Wharton MBA students might receive an appropriate amount of relief of tuition payments or other forms of assistance to compensate for the period during which the school’s operations have been and will be affected by the COVID-19 health crisis during the 2019-2020 academic year.” Nicolaj Siggelkow, vice dean of Wharton’s MBA program, did ot respond to emails or phone calls from Poets&Quants.
Even worse, a survey of Wharton MBA students at the time when most programs had then gone hybrid, with a varying mix of in-person and online instruction, Wharton was the only M7 MBA program that had taken a blended approach off the table. The survey found that 78% of the responding students said they were not excited about the upcoming semester, and 94% of students felt the value of their overall MBA experience was diminished by at least 40%. Asked to rate their expectations for the fall semester on a scale of 1 (would rather defer) to 10 (very excited), 78% of the students rated it five or below. Many students indicated they would defer if they had the financial flexibility to do so.
Wharton’s failure to meet the 20% response rate is undoubtedly a reflection of the lingering resentment of its MBA students who bore the brunt of the pandemic shutdown (see At Wharton, 8 Devastating PowerPoint Slides That Capture MBA Anger & Frustration). Those students were particularly resentful of the school’s leadership. The survey found that 86% of the students felt the Wharton administration had not incorporated student feedback in the decisions that led to online-only instruction and lockdowns in the fall of 2020.
Let it be a lesson learned.
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