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)

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