The Surprises in the 2019 Forbes Best Business Schools Rankings


The Forbes 2019 MBA program rankings are out. However, unlike the publication’s previous edition, several surprises appear in the current edition.

These surprises include a big tumble by one of the universities at the top of the previous list, along with a dramatically increased presence within the top 25 among schools that recently introduced online MBA programs. Additionally, six international business schools shot to the top spots of the complete list and Forbes fails to include the “apples to apples” comparison of one-year international business programs with the accelerated MBA counterparts in the U.S.

But the biggest surprise is not contained in this year’s rankings data. To understand more about the 2019 Forbes rankings—and the one surprise few commentators are talking about—read on.

The 2019 Forbes MBA Rankings: “Show Me the Money!”

That famous scene from the 1996 Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire sums up the best way to think of the Forbes approach to business school rankings. Why? Because besides money, nothing else matters to Forbes in their ranking methodology.

BSchools first presented an overview of graduate management education rankings in our kickoff article in this series: Reputable Rankers: A Guide to Business School Rankings. As we noted in that article, factors that can’t be financially quantified do not matter to Forbes, so the publication excludes all those nonfinancial factors from their model.

Forbes editors focus exclusively on return on investment—the ratio between an MBA alumni’s total earnings and costs—and emphasize the opportunity cost-adjusted compensation increase from earning an MBA degree.

Identified by terms such as “salary uplift,” “salary bump,” or “salary boost,” this concept receives in-depth analysis within several of our other BSchools guides. However, as we pointed out in previous articles on the topic, Forbes applies a more specific and comprehensive cost accounting approach:

The methodology focuses exclusively on a five-year “MBA Gain,” defined as the comparison between the net cumulative amount of a professional’s earnings five years after obtaining an MBA and that of the professional’s five-year earnings in their pre-MBA career. That said, Forbes does apply a meticulous accounting approach to this calculation that also factors in non-salary income along with all kinds of costs like geographic cost-of-living adjustments. The model even includes the time value of money calculations that discount future income and costs back to the present day.

In contrast to the Forbes approach, plenty of analysts, observers, and commentators believe that rankings need to compare MBA programs with respect to more factors than narrowly-focused financial benefits and costs. Accordingly, the unique Forbes model continues to endure a long tradition of widespread criticism.

Surprises in the Latest Forbes Rankings

Although many consider the Forbes rankings limited, their lists can still be useful. And the current Forbes ranking offers several surprising insights savvy potential applicants to MBA programs need to know.

Surprise #1: Wharton Tumbles

First, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania took quite a spill. Wharton plunged four places out of the previous ranking’s top spot to finish in fifth place in the current edition. That’s an unusual drop among graduate school rankings which tend to be relatively stable, year-to-year. Moreover, this plunge seems even more surprising because Wharton currently holds the top slot in the competing best business schools list published by Forbes’s arch-rival, U.S. News and World Report.

Forbes’s new winner is the University of Chicago, a university that’s demonstrated remarkable gains in several recent rankings. Currently, Chicago’s Booth School of Business ranks third on the U.S. News list, in a three-way tie with the Harvard Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Surprise #2: Online MBA Degrees Now Offered by Almost Half the U.S. Top 23

Second, for the first time, universities with online or blended online MBA programs appear throughout the Forbes United States top 25. As the following chart presents, they include nine of the top 23 universities, or about 40 percent:

Business School with Online MBA Program Ranking
The University of Michigan – Ross School of Business 10
Duke University – Fuqua School of Business 14
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Kenan-Flagler Business School 15
The University of California at Los Angeles – Anderson School of Management 16
Carnegie Mellon University – Tepper School of Business 17
Indiana University – Kelley School of Business 19
The University of Southern California – Marshall School of Business 21
Emory University – Goizueta Business School 22
The University of Washington – Foster School of Business 23

This is yet more compelling evidence that an explosion in online MBA programs is unfolding. We’re approaching a point in the history of education where the only remaining business schools without online MBA programs will soon be the elite M7 schools. But even among the M7, as we’ve reported, Harvard now offers its pre-MBA coursework through Harvard Business School Online. And economics, statistics, and accounting classes similar to Harvard’s online courses are prerequisites or core requirements at virtually all other AACSB-accredited MBA programs.

Surprise #3: No United States Schools in the Top Six

Third, none of the universities reporting Forbes’s highest salary uplift ROI measures is a United States business school. This year, the six winners are all European-based universities with one-year programs, and all of them ranked higher than the top American school, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which placed seventh. They also include Madrid’s IE Business School, an early innovator in online MBA curricula and arguably the European leader in online graduate management education. Here’s an excerpt from that ranking:

  1. International Institute for Management Development – IMD Business School (Lausanne, Switzerland)
  2. INSEAD – Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (Fontainebleau, France)
  3. University of Cambridge – Cambridge Judge Business School (Cambridge, United Kingdom)
  4. Bocconi University – Scuola di Direzione Aziendale (Milan, Italy)
  5. The University of Oxford – Saïd Business School (Oxford, United Kingdom)
  6. Instituto de Empresa – IE Business School (Madrid, Spain)

Surprise #4: No Comparisons Between One-Year European Programs and Accelerated U.S. Counterparts

Fourth, it seems curious that Forbes doesn’t draw an “apples to apples” comparison between the European one-year on-campus programs and comparable programs in the United States. That’s because, oddly enough, Forbes ranks the non-United States one-year programs, but doesn’t compare them with accelerated U.S. programs that require much less than two years to complete.

Nevertheless, the United States offers several such accelerated MBA programs. They include online programs like the 18-month MBA@UNC program offered by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, as well as the one-year online MBA from American University’s Kogod School of Business. Accelerated programs also include the one-year degree offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the 16-month degree from Columbia University’s Columbia Business School, and degrees from New York University’s Stern School of Business, the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

For more about accelerated United States MBA programs, see our guide in BSchools’ FAQ section, How Long Does it Take to Complete an MBA Program?

The Biggest Surprise About the Forbes Rankings Data

The world of MBA rankings is no stranger to cheating scandals. Tulane University, recently in the news over cheating allegations charged by a whistleblower, lost its U.S. News ranking in 2013 after providing the publication four years of GMAT scores inflated by an average of 35 points per student. More recently, the echoes of another cheating scandal continue to reverberate through graduate management education. In that well-publicized case, Temple University fired their business school’s dean in June 2018 for knowingly submitting false data to U.S. News. That false information helped Temple rank at the top of the publication’s chart of the best online MBA programs.

Given the industry’s checkered history—and given the Forbes ranking’s hard-nosed, dollars-and-cents-driven philosophy—one might suppose that Forbes would be particularly conscientious about ensuring the integrity of their data. After all, it’s not like the publication can back up their conclusions with additional nonfinancial data, because it doesn’t collect any for its rankings.

So there are two issues with the Forbes methodology. Here’s the first: self-reporting errors. Incredibly, Forbes bases their methodology on self-reported survey data collected directly from samples of MBA alumni.

Now, do those alumni have reasons to lie? Of course they do! Their survey answers directly affect the reputation of the university brands that these alumni display on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and that brand equity alone can earn them many millions of dollars over the course of their careers. These survey respondents have everything to gain by substantially inflating the dollar values of the salary and compensation figures that they report to Forbes. Other than upholding their own sense of business ethics, these respondents have nothing to gain by providing 100 percent truthful answers.

The respondents might have everything to gain by inflating their compensation by 10, 25, or even as much as 50 percent. But do they have anything to lose? No, they do not, and this brings us to the second methodology issue: non-validation. Forbes doesn’t validate these self-reported responses. Nowhere in the description of the methodology can one find any discussion of a system that the publication has in place for verifying any of this data. They’re not exactly providing discussions of how they compare the reports submitted by the respondents alongside tax returns, or next to transcripts of phone interviews conducted with their supervisors or payroll departments.

Yet competing authorities say they’ve added initiatives to validate rankings data. U.S. News claims to now have procedures in place to ensure the integrity of data supplied them by business schools. The Financial Times also claims to spot-check the data they collect from a small sample of 25 schools with the help of the accounting firm KPMG.

Moreover, the London-based sponsor of the World MBA Tour, Quatrocelli Symonds, compiles their own set of MBA program rankings every year. A competitive advantage that QS touts is that they follow a protocol designed to verify their results before releasing them to the public.

But if authorities like Forbes want the public to believe their university rankings in the wake of so many scandals, then maybe it’s about time that they permit a technique that’s been required of public corporations in the United States for many decades: independent professional auditing. The techniques and statistical methods that underlie modern auditing have been practiced for many decades, and there is no reason why media outlets—including Forbes—should resist collaborating with an independent public accounting firm like KPMG to provide comprehensive auditing and validation.

Even after this string of highly-publicized cheating scandals that rocked the graduate management education industry, ranking authorities like Forbes still do not appear to have taken steps to ensure the public’s confidence and trust in the accuracy of their data and conclusions. Now, that fact is the biggest surprise in the 2019 business school rankings from Forbes.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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