Best B-school in the U.S.: Still Harvard, after all these years

December 2, 2013: 9:21 AM ET

For the fourth year in a row, the Cambridge-based university takes top MBA honors in Poets&Quants ranking.

By Maya Itah

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(Poets&Quants) -- This year's Poets&Quants' ranking of the best full-time MBA programs in the U.S. proves that the best business schools tend to stay put: There isn't a single difference between the top eight MBA programs in our new 2013 composite ranking and the top eight in 2012. What's more, all top 10 schools remained firmly in the top ten this year.

The steadiest institution is still Harvard Business School, which took the top spot for the fourth year in a row. Despite less-than-flattering publicity generated by a New York Times' feature on gender inequality at Harvard, an MBA from the school remains the quintessential credential in business. No rival beats Harvard in the formidable resources it brings to the game: the outsize number of superstar professors, the diversity of its course offerings, the stellar quality of its students, the size and scope of its campus, and the achievements of its alumni.

This year's entering class at Harvard, moreover, is one of school's most impressive ever. Drawing from an applicant pool that was up 3.9% last year to 9,315 hopefuls, Harvard welcomed just 941 incoming MBA students, with the highest percentage of women ever at 41% of the class. The median GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) score was a hefty 720, while the average undergraduate grade point average for the newest crop of MBA students was an impressive 3.67.

Yet, it's worth noting that the underlying index scores in our composite ranking -- which annually weighs the five most influential MBA rankings, ranging from BusinessWeek to U.S. News & World Report -- are especially close. The scores of No. 1 Harvard, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Chicago, and No. 4 University of Pennsylvania are fractions away from each other; a mere 0.35 separates Harvard and its perennial West Coast rival Stanford.

This is also the fourth time in a row that Chicago has ranked ahead of Wharton on the Poets&Quants list, giving slightly more credence to the view that it is no longer Harvard-Stanford-Wharton at the top. Wharton was the only Top 10 school that saw a decline in applications for the class of 2015. Its applicant pool shrunk by 5.8% this past year, while Chicago Booth reported the biggest percentage boost in applications of any Top 10 school -- a healthy 9.9%. The increase actually made Chicago slightly more selective than Wharton for the first time.

The immovable top eight differ in many ways -- size, region, culture, and so on. But the schools do have one feature in common: They're all private, pricey, highly prestigious institutions with powerful global brands. This is business school, after all.

And compared to the best law schools, the top schools that hand out MBA diplomas are doing exceptionally well. For one thing, nine out of the ten reported an increase in MBA applications, allowing most to be even more selective than usual. For another, Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) averages for the class of 2015 also rose at nine of the ten schools, reaching record levels at several MBA programs. The historical GMAT leader, Stanford, is reporting a record 732 average GMAT this year, up from 729 last year. The only school to report a decline was UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, where the average fell by just one point to 714 this year from 715 last year.

Wharton and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business scored the largest single increases in GMAT averages: Despite a fall in applications, Wharton hit a record 725, higher than any school other than Stanford or Harvard. Kellogg, meanwhile, reported a record average of 715. At both Wharton and Kellogg, the mean GMAT bumped up seven points in a single year, from 718 at Wharton and 708 at Kellogg.

Undergraduate grade point averages -- already high -- remained pretty stable with some noteworthy exceptions. At Stanford, average GPA crept higher to an astounding 3.73, highest of any U.S. business school and up from 3.69 last year. At Chicago Booth, GPA eked up to 3.57 this year, from 3.52 a year earlier. Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business reported a tiny increase to 3.50 from 3.49. In general, though, undergraduate GPAs were exactly the same year-over-year: A 3.67 at Harvard, a 3.50 at Columbia, a 3.61 at UC-Berkeley Haas, and a 3.40 at Duke University's Fuqua School.

Most admissions officials and deans say the applicant pool is among the best they have ever seen. "The quality of the pool is just stronger," says Stacey R. Kole, deputy dean of the full-time MBA program at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "We hit a 730 median GMAT this year, the 96th percentile. There are very few people under 680 these days. When I got here 10 years ago, the average GMAT was 695. It's a record this year at 723. And it's not like we just shimmied under the bar on GMAT." Indeed, Chicago Booth's 730 median is now equal to Harvard Business School for the first time in the school's history.

When it comes to this year's ranking of the best, the top 20 did change -- but not much. UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business and Duke University's Fuqua School switched places this year: Fuqua took the ninth spot, and Haas landed in tenth place. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan's Ross School and the University of Virginia's Darden School also pulled a switch. The Midwestern titan rose to No. 12, while Darden slipped to No. 13. In the middle of all the swapping, Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management remained stable at No. 11.

Though its Northern Californian cousin slipped a little, UCLA climbed from No. 17 to No. 14. It even bumped NYU's Stern School out of the No. 14 spot, sending it down to No. 15. Meanwhile, Yale School of Management finished at No. 17, down from 15 last year. U.S. News and the Financial Times actually placed Yale above UCLA, but the other rankings -- in particular, the return-on-investment focused Forbes list -- favored the Los Angeles-based school.

Unlike other rankings, the Poets&Quants composite list combines the latest results from 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 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 up 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.

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