Harvard takes top MBA ranking for third year in a row

December 11, 2012: 12:01 PM ET

With well-received revisions to its curriculum and a massive endowment, Harvard Business School maintains its hold on the top spot on Poets&Quants MBA rankings.121211032903-best-bschools-harvard-gallery-horizontal

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- For the third consecutive year, Harvard Business School remained at the top of Poets&Quants' 2012 composite ranking of the business schools with the best full-time MBA programs. Harvard was followed by the No. 2 Stanford Graduate School of Business, No. 3 the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and No. 4 the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

It was the exact same lineup of top four business schools that made our 2011 list of the best 100 MBA programs in the U.S.

Among the top 25 business schools, the biggest news is that Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management is beginning to show improvement under Dean Sally Blount, who took the reins in July 2010. Her new leadership team has turned the business school upside down, rethinking every aspect of the MBA program. Kellogg rose two places to finish fifth this year, jumping over MIT Sloan and Columbia.

Meanwhile, No. 7 Columbia was the only school in the top 25 to fall two places. Columbia's graduates have complained about the uneven quality of teaching in the first-year core curriculum, the university resources devoted to the business school, the outreach by career services to companies other than consulting and banking, and the acceptance of "connected" applicants. "Too many students are 'sons of,'" claimed one MBA graduate. "They are plain dumb but got in because dad or mom wrote a big check to the school. This is not acceptable."

Those issues have been compounded by the decline of Wall Street, a steep 19% fall in MBA applications during the 2011-2012 academic year, and criticism of Dean R. Glenn Hubbard's leadership of the school. Some students believe that Hubbard, whose credibility was questioned during a confrontational interview in the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, has been a largely absent dean due to his involvement as an economic adviser to Mitt Romney during the presidential election.

Unlike other rankings, the Poets&Quants composite list combines the five most influential business school rankings in the world: Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Economist, The Financial Times, Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report. Instead of merely averaging the five, each ranking is separately weighted to account for our view of their authority and credibility. (The BusinessWeek, Forbes, and U.S. News lists are given a weight of 25% each, while the FT is given a 15% weight and The Economist is given a 10% weight.)

Combining the five most influential rankings doesn't eliminate the flaws in each system, but it does significantly diminish them. When an anomaly pops on one list due to either faulty survey technique or biased methodology, bringing all the data together tends to suppress it. So the composite index tones down the noise in each of these five surveys to get more directly at the real signal that is being sent. Poets&Quants' list of the best non-U.S. schools will appear next week.

This is not unlike the prescient analysis that Nate Silver, the New York Times blogger, brought to the recent presidential election. By analyzing each political poll and averaging the results across all of them, Silver came up with more precise results than what could have been revealed by any single poll. When the election was done, he was pretty much the only outside observer who had accurately predicted the popular vote and the electoral vote outcomes.

Harvard's hold on the top spot is a no-brainer, even if many of the most influential rankings fail to recognize HBS as the best school. Harvard continues to set the pace for the MBA. Major revisions to its curriculum, including the introduction of experiential learning projects, have been well received and orchestrated at the predominantly case study school. The changes, which require international consulting trips and the creation of HBS-funded microbusinesses, have brought new energy and excitement to the school. The quality of its students and faculty is second to none. At $2.8 billion, HBS has the largest endowment of any business school in the world, so it has the resources to stay on top.

Among the top 50 business schools, the big winners were Washington University's Olin School in St. Louis, up 11 places to finish 29th from 41st last year, the University of Minnesota's Carlson School, and the University of Washington's Foster School, both up seven places to rank 27th and 33rd, respectively.

The Olin School's rise in our composite ranking is largely the result of significantly improved graduate satisfaction scores in BusinessWeek's latest list as well as its inclusion on the 2012 Financial Times list. The school's graduate satisfaction rank jumped to 15 this year from 31st in 2010, pushing its overall BusinessWeek rank up nine places to 31st from 40. And after not making The Financial Times' 2011 ranking, Olin reappeared on its global top 100 list at a U.S. rank of 30 earlier this year.

Schools with more significant movement on this year's list tend to be those that weren't ranked by all five players and then won that distinction this year. Both Carlson and Foster fall into that category, making The Financial Times 2012 list after not being on the previous year's ranking. Carlson and Foster also improved their standing on The Economist's list.

The top 50 school that suffered the biggest fall? Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, which slid 18 places to No. 47 this year from 29 in 2011. It was the largest single decline of any school in our top 100 this year. The reason: A change in methodology by BusinessWeek largely prompted by the school's surprising surge in that magazine's ranking to No. 12 in 2010. A change in how the magazine calculates its recruiter scores led to a fall to No. 29 this year.

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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