Columbia Business School Tops 2021 Executive MBA Ranking

Best Executive MBA Programs in the U.S.

The top five Executive MBA programs in the U.S. in 2021

Columbia Business School, the the world’s largest player in the Executive MBA market, earns top honors in the 2021 ranking of the best EMBA programs in the U.S. Enrolling slightly more than 400 students annually into three different options in New York and a pair of partnership programs in London and Hong Kong, CBS zoomed up from fourth place to move into first.

Rounding out the top five were the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which captured second place, New York University’s Stern School of Business, Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in fifth.

The new P&Q ranking, which takes into account the three major EMBA rankings from U.S. News, the Financial Times, and The Economist, sees many changes, some of which are the result of several highly prominent programs deciding not to cooperate with either the Financial Times or The Economist rankings due to the pandemic. Chicago Booth, which claimed first two years ago in Poets&Quants‘ composite ranking, sank to 24th after withdrawing from both the FT and Economist lists. The same fate befell Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management which dropped to 13th from third place after disappearing from the Financial Times ranking. And the Wharton School, ranked second two years ago in the P&Q ranking, plunged to 14th after falling off the latest Economist ranking.


Those declines cleared the way for Columbia to emerge the U.S. leader in Executive MBAs. The school has been one of the early pioneers in executive degree programming, launching its first EMBA in 1966, second only to the University of Chicago’s entry in 1943. Columbia’s largest program, its 20-month-long alternating Friday-Saturday EMBA that launches every August, brings in 144 students a year. The school’s 24-month-long, Saturday only program with a May start, enrolls 130 students. Launched in 2011, the EMBA NY Saturday option was meant to address waning corporate sponsorship and target up-and-coming high flyers who are largely paying for the degree out of pocket.

As usual, each of the three major Executive MBA rankings employs vastly different methodologies. The U.S. News ranking of the top 25 U.S. programs is based entirely on a survey sent to deans and senior faculty of business schools. The Financial Times ranking is the result of two surveys: one to the schools and another to alumni of the programs. The list incorporates 16 different metrics, with the most emphasis, 40%, on salaries. A total of 4,810 alumni completed the survey last year. The Economist culls 24 different metrics from surveys to schools and alumni, placing a weight of 27.5% on pay. Roughly 8,500 alums completed the Economist surveys last year.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, all three of the latest rankings end up with completely different winners. Besides Chicago topping the U.S. list and U.C.-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business taking first prize in The Economist, Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School is the top-rated U.S. standalone EMBA program on the Financial Times’ list.


What makes rankings of Executive MBA programs very different from lists that rate full-time MBA offerings are that they tend to give short shrift to the quality of incoming students. That’s because such metrics as GMAT scores, undergraduate grade point averages, and acceptance rates are less important in the EMBA market. Many programs don’t even require a standardized test and put more weight on work and leadership experience than an undergraduate GPA. Career outcomes, though measured generally in compensation terms, aren’t as revealing either because there are no employment stats for students who are already fully employed and compensation is largely a function of what an executive was already earning when he or she entered the program.

In the P&Q composite ranking, schools are penalized by the methodology when their programs fail to finish in all three of the most influential lists. That’s because we want to discourage shopping for the best ranks and also want to encourage a school to face up to the scrutiny of the more authoritative and credible organizations that do rankings. The other reason for giving credit to schools that participate in all three lists is that the program’s overall rank is more reliable. Three measures, however flawed and different, are better than two or one. Combining all three rankings tends to diminish an oddball result in a single ranking and at least directionally gets users to a greater truth.

All that said, potential EMBA applicants should look over these rankings carefully. Only a dozen of the 57 ranked U.S. programs placed on all three of the most recent lists. Even though the University of Maryland’s EMBA program is ranked higher on the P&Q composite list than the University of Virginia’s Darden School, it’s highly unlikely that students in the Maryland program would get a better experience than those who go to UVA, which has an EMBA on a new campus overlooking the Potomac in the Rosslyn district of downtown Arlington, Va. But UVA chose not to cooperate with either the FT or The Economist so its rank of 32nd, versus 21st for Maryland, is not a true reflection of the program’s quality.

Another way to look at this is to scrutinize the rankings for full-time MBA programs at these two schools. In the latest Poets&Quants‘ full-time MBA ranking, UVA Darden ranks 11th, 32 places ahead of Maryland’s full-time MBA. In general, we believe that full-time MBA rankings are the single best reflection of a business school’s overall quality. Darden is consistently in the top 15, while Maryland has never cracked the top 25. For the same reasons, it would also be hard to justify Wharton’s rank of 14th, a direct result of its failure to participate in The Economist ranking.


Regardless, what the P&Q tables allow potential candidates is the ability to see at one glance where each EMBA program is rated across the trio of the most influential rankings (or not) and how that all adds up in a composite score. You can then decide what to discount, what to ignore, and what to believe. The index score also provides a bit more context to allow you to see if an actual numerical rank is more or less meaningful.

It’s also worth noting that The Economist ranks the most U.S. standalone EMBA programs, 40 out of the 70 schools on the list. That level of cooperation is a testament to the magazine’s well-heeled and educated audience, a demographic that is most in sync with potential EMBA students. The FT ranks 22 standalone U.S. EMBAs on its top 100 global ranking. U.S. News limits its list to just 30 EMBA programs, all in the U.S.


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