An Economist Ranking That Lacks Credibility

IE Business School in Spain

IE Business School in Spain

“A win is a win.” That’s what coaches say. But no one wants an asterisk next to a victory. With The Economist’s 2015 Executive MBA rankings, you’ll find a very bold, unavoidable asterisk at the top.

The Economist announced this week (May 15) that Spain’s IE Business School had topped its second bi-annual ranking of EMBA programs. Ranked second in 2013, the program overtook The Economist’s inaugural winner, the joint EMBA program from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and York University’s Schulich School of Business – which fell to fifth overall.

Like Manhattan socials, the big news wasn’t who made the list, but who got snubbed. Wharton’s EMBA program, which finished second in Poets&Quants’ 2014 EMBA rankings, was one program that wasn’t ranked at all, even though it is unquestionably one of the two best executive programs in the world. Also missing in action was Duke University (Fuqua), which ranked one spot below IE Business School with Poets& Quants. At the same time, the Trium Global Executive MBA program – a partnership between HEC Paris, the London School of Economics, and New York University (Stern) – also wasn’t included in The Economist’s 2015 ranking – despite scoring first place in the Financial Times latest ranking. In each case, these programs likely elected not to participate. However, their exclusion begs the question: Was IE Business School truly the best – or are they a paper champion that backed into the honor, instead?


UCLA's Anderson School of Management

UCLA’s Anderson School of Management

In the top five, the University of Oxford (Saïd) climbed two spots to second, followed by Northwestern University (Kellogg)’s standalone EMBA program, which jumped from eighth to third. UCLA’s joint EMBA program with the National University of Singapore dropped from third in 2013 to fourth. In addition, UCLA’s standalone EMBA program fell from 13th to 19th.

Technically, you could argue that Kellogg is truly the king of executive MBA partnerships. Overall, it has four programs among the top eleven in The Economist’s 2015 ranking. This includes its joint partnerships with Germany’s WHU (i.e. Otto Brisheim School of Management) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, with these programs ranking sixth and 11th respectively. Similarly, you could point to Texas, fueled by growth in the energy and tech sectors, as an emerging player.  Three Texas programs – Texas Christian (Neely), Southern Methodist University (Cox), and the University of Texas (McCombs) ranked 12th, 13th, and 18th respectively.

New York University (Stern), which didn’t participate in The Economist’s 2013 ranking, joined in at 17th this year. However, the University of Southern California (USC) and INSEAD were again missing from the list. The Thunderbird School of Global Management, which also wasn’t part of the 2013 rankings, entered this year’s rankings at seventh. Similarly, the Yale School of Management debuted at 10th.


Overall, the schools are broken into five bands, ranging from A to E based on where programs were clustered statistically. Only two programs, IE Business School and the University of Oxford (Saïd), were part of the top band (A). At the same time, schools ranked from third (Kellogg) to 20th (Cornell Johnson) fell into the second band (B), showing just how close that EMBA programs bunched in the top 20 really are to each other or rather how badly flawed the magazine’s methodology is. Among the 62 programs ranked by The Economist, 41 were either fully or partially based in the United States, including 17 of the top 20-ranked schools.

Michigan's Ross School of Business

Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Several American programs climbed in the British magazine’s EMBA rankings. For example, the University of Georgia (Terry) rose from 22nd to 14th, with the University of Michigan making a similar eight spot jump (24th to 16th). At the same time, several schools faced major slumps. Take IESE, which ranked 5th in 2013. It plummeted to 25th, a fall from grace that was only exceeded by the University of Bath (11th to 44th). At the same time, the University of Notre Dame (Mendoza) slipped from 15th to 23rd, while the joint ESADE-Georgetown EMBA program fell ten spots (from 12th to 22nd).

At the same time, you’ll find plenty of head scratchers in The Economist’s rankings. Is the University of Chicago program at the Booth School of Business only just the ninth best program – behind Thunderbird, no less? Along with the exclusion of Wharton, this is a laughable conclusion that warns readers of this ranking to see it for its entertainment value but little else.

And why is Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Georgia ranked higher than Columbia, Michigan, and New York University? We’ll probably never know. Unlike the Financial Times, which provides salary data and school rankings in areas measured, The Economist only shares overall rankings. At best, this gives the rankings a certain mystery. At worst, this lack of transparency opens The Economist up to skepticism on how certain schools earned their ranks.


In a press release announcing the rankings, The Economist noted that more professionals than ever are paying for their EMBAs. “Expensive EMBAs were once seen as important ways to train and retain firms’ most talented, up-and-coming executives. But the number of companies that pay for managers to attend such programmes has fallen precipitously in the past decade. In 2005, 69% of students surveyed by The Economist were sponsored; this year just 39% were. That is because despite six-figure tuition fees, many managers now fund themselves.”

At the same time, however, EMBA graduates are earning more than ever before. “Students on the programme offered by top-ranked IE, for example, enter the course earning an average of around $144,000. A year after they graduate, this has risen to $260,000, more than covering the $81,000 cost of the programme. A healthy 85% of its students, surveyed by The Economist, say they received a promotion soon after graduation. Such figures are replicated across all of the schools at the top of our ranking.”

(Go to Next Page to see how The Economist EMBA rankings compare to rankings from Poets&Quants and the Financial Times)

  • Annoyed

    “Wharton’s EMBA program, which finished second in Poets&Quants’ 2014 EMBA rankings, was one program that wasn’t ranked at all, even though it is unquestionably one of the two best executive programs in the world…”
    Even though it is unquestionably one of the two best….oh really says who…this publication and US NEWs or FT? Oh please! I am so tired of everyone drooling all over Wharton and their MBA program. Of course it is great and should certainly be ranked (as should Duke) – but as a 40 something I would MUCH prefer to go to MIT or Booth or Kellogg or Duke or Yale or Johnson with a typically more seasoned group of executives that I feel would be better suited to my point in life. Gimme a break already

    • JohnAByrne

      The main point we are trying to make here is that Wharton is a world-class business school and its Executive MBA program is one of the absolute best for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with other rankings. The school puts the best of its superb faculty in this program and makes the curriculum every bit as demanding as a two-year MBA program. It’s a full two years long, not 12 or 14 months. It’s all in face-to-face sessions, not a hybrid of distance learning with some residential meetings thrown in. It is not, as some EMBA programs are, an MBA-lite degree.

      No less important, the quality of the candidates who enroll in the Wharton program are second to none. The school requires that applicants take the GMAT or GRE (a number of schools have dropped this requirement or never had it), requires the submission of three written essays, recommendations, and an in-person admissions interview. It turns down roughly half of the applicants who apply (while many of schools have acceptance rates of 90% or higher). And the base criteria for a candidate is high: Eight or more years of work experience, with five years of management experience.

      The class profiles pretty much tell you the story about the quality of the people who get into Wharton’s EMBA. In Philadelphia, the median GMAT is 700, with slightly more than half of the students already having advanced degrees and pulling down median pay of $155,600. In San Francisco, the median GMAT is 695, with 40% of the students having advanced degrees. The median pay: $160,000.

      For anyone who knows anything about EMBA programs, these are stellar figures. And that is why we say the Wharton program is unquestionably one of the very best in the world.

      • Annoyed

        Respect the opinion and facts, but we disagree. My point in doing an eMBA is to study with great faculty and smart and experienced students. Wharton however is a younger cohort/demographic than many other top eMBA programs, and almost seems to me to be just a slightly older traditional MBA crowd than a true comparable eMBA cohort. I am not doubting the Intelligence of Wharton’s eMBA students at all, but I do think, GMATs aside, that the students at MIT, Yale, Cornell, Northwestern, Duke, Michigan, and Chicago, as examples, would be on balance as just as capable (or more so) and also tend to have further experience and seniority to add…and I do not think this website sees things the same way. I think P&Q puts way more stock in the GMAT score than it really deserves and advocates the Wharton is the gold standard philosophy to almost a fault unfortunately. In the end Wharton may be the Gold Standard for some students who always wanted to go there and could not get into the full time program and so waited a few years to reapply into the eMBA where admissions rates are much higher. In contrast, Duke, MIT, Michigan, Cornell, Kellogg, Booth etc may be the gold standard for whole bunch of more experienced managers who see more value for their careers at those schools. Different strokes…

      • Steven

        I understand the anonymous poster’s irritation at the amount of press Wharton gets, and the “importance” of GMAT scores (or lack thereof). However I totally agree with John here. Wharton is absolutely one of the top programs and its absence raises questions about the integrity of the rankings. Especially when you see things like Thunderbird surpassing Booth. Some of the other inclusions are equally bizarre.

        Also, to other the poster – Wharton’s class profile (at least in SF) is not very different in seniority from the other schools you are comparing them to. You might want to double check your facts. The cohort age is getting younger at many programs. I don’t see that as a good thing, but it is what it is.

        • Annoyed

          Steven I appreciate and respect the post very much. Also, I agree with John and you both – that Wharton is undeniably one of the finest eMBA programs – just absolutely not prepared to agree that it is the best or the gold standard.
          I just happen to think that there are several others (mentioned) that truly are just as strong or stronger experiences for prospective students. If the ONLY measurement for BEST eMBA is admission rates and GMATs than that is quite sad in my mind because the other programs discussed are equally strong options with crazy smart students.
          As to average age. I have looked at the facts. Wharton shows 34. Cornell (Americas) shows 38. Michigan shows 40. MIT shows 40. Booth shows 37. Duke GEMBA shows 39 . Kellogg shows 37.5. Yale shows 36. It seems to me that that the average age amongst the non-Wharton eMBAs is just over 38 years of age. Approaching 4 to 5 more years of work experience is quite significant in my mind and in my own career experience. Are we talking about the same candidates at all these schools – not sure.
          I think there are several best options is all..
          Cheers and Best!

  • Stevenson

    The real ranking should be about the school prestige, ask head hunters and recruitment decision makers. Ranking may change year to year, school prestige not so often. So for an MBA or Executive MBA, MIT Havard, Standford, Columbia and Wharton will get you where you want to be if you enrolled to get a push in the career…