Why Wharton’s EMBA Ranks So Low In The New 2020 Financial Times Ranking

Wharton Executive MBA students on the school’s Philadelphia campus

The biggest surprise in the Financial Times ranking of the world’s best Executive MBA programs published today (Oct. 26) is the incredibly low standing of the best options offered by U.S. business schools.

Consider that the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton MBA for Executives is the highest-ranked standalone program on the list of the top 100 and it barely makes the Top 25. Wharton, in fact, is ranked 24th. Columbia Business School, one of the biggest players in the EMBA market, is ranked 28th. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business offering for executives placed 34th The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business makes the Top 50 but at a rank of 44th.

No less surprising, the U.S. schools with the highest-ranked EMBAs last year are not even on the 2020 list. In 2021, MIT Sloan School of Management, ranked 15th globally, Yale School of Management, ranked 17th, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, with a rank of 21st, have all disappeared from the new FT ranking, presumably because those three institutions decided it wasn’t worth their bother to participate. Also gone is the standalone EMBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management which placed 32nd last year. All told, 22 of the 100 ranked programs are standalone offerings based in the U.S. (see below table).

FOR THE TENTH OUT OF 19 RANKINGS, THE KELLOGG/HONG KONG UST JOINT PROGRAM TOPS THE LIST

What gives? How is it even remotely possible that many of the biggest brands in graduate management education with the most resources to recruit and hire the best faculty do so poorly in the FT’s ranking? Are the Executive MBA programs at such world-class leaders as Wharton and Columbia that much inferior to those in Europe and Asia?

After all, the top standalone EMBA in this year’s ranking is CEIBS in Shanghai, China, while the second highest is the EMBA at HEC Paris which is third overall.

And the number one program this year? It is the partnership EMBA between Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which regained first place from HEC Paris, last year’s top winner. This is the fourth win for this program in the past five years. Even more impressive, this joint offering has won the FT Executive MBA crown for ten times out of 19 rankings.

‘ADJUSTED’ SALARIES THREE YEARS AFTER GRADUATION LOOM LARGE IN THE RANKING

Though the FT considers 16 different metrics to come up with its ranking, some 40% of the entire list is based on just two measures: Salaries three years after graduation and the percentage increase in alumni pay over pre-EMBA salaries. That heavy emphasis on compensation tends to favor programs with more senior executives. That is one of the major reasons why the Kellogg/HKUST program has done so well over so many years. In 2020, that program again leads all schools in alumni salaries three years after graduation which averaged a whopping $528,057. That tidy sum reflects a salary increase for students of 67%, 19th best of the 100 schools in the ranking.

Yet, there’s even a hitch in this metric that tends to favor schools that enroll large numbers of students from countries with high rates of poverty. That is because the compensation numbers are adjusted by the Financial Times to account for purchasing power parity (PPP), a factor that favors China. Six of the most highly ranked dozen schools have a connection to China. The second highest alumni salary (adjusted of course) was for CEIBS in Shanghai: An eye-opening $482,674.

The FT doesn’t provide the raw numbers for these adjusted figures but the OECD’s purchasing parity calculator essentially provides a 4.2 multiplier on Chinese salaries so the actual number is closer to $115,000 or nearly $120,000 less than the $234,239 average for Wharton. That’s why some of the best Executive MBA programs in the world, particularly those in the U.S., fare surprisingly poorly in the Financial Times ranking. In short, this is a ranking that is less about the quality of a program and more about compensation figures that come out of some black box filter.

FOR EMBA APPLICANTS, YOU’RE BETTER OFF JUDGING A PROGRAM BY ITS FULL-TIME MBA RANKING

In fact, if you look at one of the most important metrics gathered by the FT yet not included in the ranking methodology is the overall satisfaction level of a program’s graduates. Some 15 of the 22 U.S. standalone programs in the ranking score at or above the sample’s 9.23 median satisfaction score, with the University of Washington and UC-Irvine’s Executive MBA programs at 9.6 on the ten-point scale, with ten reflecting the highest possible satisfaction level. The University of Tennessee’s program had a 9.71 satisfaction score, second-highest for any ranked school. The lowest score, by the way, was achieved by The Lisbon MBA, a joint-venture between two European business schools, Católica-Lisbon and Nova SBE, in collaboration with MIT Sloan. The program’s score: a 7.70.

Add to this very significant disadvantage to U.S. schools the rest of the methodological bias that favors international schools: 18% of the ranking is dedicated to such international-related data as international faculty (5%), international students (5%), international course experience (5%), international board (2%), and having at least a portion of the program in a different language than English (1%).

When you compare Wharton’s metrics against the highest rand standalone Executive MBS on the Financial Times list., you’ll find that Wharton exceeds CEIBS in Shanghai on only two of 16 metrics: the rank assigned to academic research and the percentage of alumni who say the program allowed them to achieve their goals. On research, Wharton is No. 1 vs. CEIBS which lags behind at a rank of 53. On “aims achieved,” Wharton narrowly wins, with 80% of the alums satisfied that their objectives were met versus 78% at CEIBS. On a pair of other metrics the two schools are tied: The number of additional languages and the percentage of faculty with doctorates (as if either of these things really matter).

WHAT THE FT FAILS TO MEASURE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT IT DOES MEASURE

Otherwise, CEIBS trounces Wharton on a dozen other measures, including average purchasing parity adjusted salary ($482,674 vs. $234,239), salary growth (87% vs. 69%), career progress rank (19th vs. 33rd), work experience rank (20th vs. 70th), female faculty (30% vs. 25%), female students (43% vs. 32%), women on the school’s advisory board (43% vs. 21%), international faculty (80% vs. 37%), international students (70% vs 31%), international members of the school’s advisory board (64% vs. 49%), the rank for the percentage of the program outside the home country (14th vs. 76th), and the newspaper’s corporate social responsibility rank (69th vs. 86th).

What these metrics fail to measure, it can be argued, is far more important than what they do in fact measure. How about the ability of a student to immediately apply the learning at work? Or the chance to bring a challenge in your job into the classroom where your classmates might contribute to a solution? What about the qualify of the teaching in the classroom? Or what students think about the quality of their classmates? And how would these students assess the value of the school’s alumni network? The way the FT designs this ranking shows the newspaper puts no value on these far more important metrics.

And what of the overall satisfaction score reported by the Financial Times but not included in its ranking methodology? Wharton comes out on top vs. CEIBS with a score of 9.58 out of ten versus CEIBS’ 8.94.

So if you are hunting for the best options in the world, the FT list does more to confuse applicants than it does to shed light on what executive MBA experiences are truly the very best. It’s also evidence that ranking specific programs outside the full-time MBA is less valuable. In almost all cases, the full-time, residential MBA program is the flagship graduate management offering at a business school. The ranking for those programs tends to cast a long shadow over everything else and is often considered the ranking for the business school overall.

(See the following pages for the full ranking)

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.