The Baker Library of the Harvard Business School
Photograph by Victor J. Blue — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Harvard remains the quintessential credential in business.

By John A. Byrne and Poets&Quants
November 19, 2015

When Facebook’s Libby Leffler concluded that she wanted to apply to business school, she made one big decision: To apply to Harvard Business School and not to another famous school less than two miles away from Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. She was drawn to the East Coast by the HBS alumni she met in her business dealings at Facebook and Google, as well as the learning process in Harvard classrooms.

Leffler’s visit to the HBS campus, she explains, convinced her that the MBA experience at Harvard would not only be transformative. It would be, as she puts it, one of a kind. “Before ever applying to HBS, I made a personal decision that if I was going to go back to school and step out of my work at Facebook — which was challenging and hugely interesting in itself — I needed to be able to step into an environment that was fast-paced and unfamiliar,” says Leffler, who as senior manager of strategic partnerships at Facebook had worked closely with COO Sheryl Sandberg. “The case method requires you to learn new things in just this way. It demands preparation and synthesis of a large amount of (often incomplete) information to get to the heart of an issue very quickly and then engage in a productive dialogue with the people around you.”

What attracted Leffler to HBS—the quality of its MBA experience—is also what has allowed Harvard Business School to reclaim the title of world’s best MBA program in Poets&Quants’ 2015 ranking of the top business schools. Nudging aside Stanford, Harvard emerged as the No. 1 program for the fifth time in six years in Poets&Quants’ composite ranking, evidence that an MBA from the school remains the quintessential credential in business.

No rival beats Harvard in the formidable resources it brings to the game: more superstar professors than any other school, the diversity of its course offerings, the stellar quality of its students, the size and scope of its campus, and the career achievements of its alumni spread all over the world. Hardly resting on its laurels, HBS has in recent years taken a lead over all rivals in leveraging technology to deliver business education, emphasizing entrepreneurship and innovation in its core curriculum, and providing well-planned global immersions for its MBA students. It also has the capacity to retain its lead, with a $3 billion endowment, which is three times the size of its nearest competitor Stanford. With three years left before the end of an unprecedented $1 billion capital campaign, HBS had already raised $861 million by last June.

Stanford, rocked by a leadership crisis and sex scandal that has made headlines all over the world, slipped to second place in the new P&Q ranking. More telling, perhaps, the gap between HBS and its perennial West Coast rival—as measured by the underlying index scores in the ranking—is the widest it has ever been since P&Q began ranking MBA programs in 2010. That is a surprising development because the rankings have yet to fully reflect the damage to Stanford’s reputation caused by the scandal, which has left many alumni feeling disappointed and angry with the school and the university.

All so-called M7 business schools, the super elite group that comprise the Magnificent 7 MBA programs, are solidly in the top seven. There’s No. 3 Chicago Booth, No. 4 Wharton, No. 5 Kellogg, No. 6 Columbia, and No. 7 MIT Sloan. Rounding out the Top 10 are No. 8 UC-Berkeley Haas, No. 9 Dartmouth Tuck, and No. 10 Yale School of Management.

The new list of the Top 10 MBA programs in the U.S. saw both the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management edge one place higher this year, while Berkeley and Yale gained two spots over their 2014 standing in the survey. For the first time ever, Yale made P&Q’s Top 10, pushing down Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to 11th place. Only three years ago, Yale’s MBA program ranked 17th best.

In a separate ranking of MBA programs outside the U.S., INSEAD moved into first place, displacing London Business School, which slipped to second. IESE Business School and IE Business School, both in Spain, took third and fourth, respectively, while HEC Paris ranked fifth, climbing three places from No. 8 last year.

P&Q’s lineup of the best U.S. MBA programs combines the five most influential rankings. Those include rankings by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Financial Times, and The Economist. Instead of merely averaging the five, each ranking is separately weighted to account for our view of their authority. U.S. News is given a weight of 35%, Forbes, 25%, both the FT and Businessweek are given a 15% weight, and The Economist receives a 10% weight.

Combining the five most influential rankings doesn’t eliminate the flaws in each system, but it does significantly diminish them. When an anomaly pops on one list due to either faulty survey technique or biased methodology, bringing all the data together tends to suppress it. So the composite index tones down the noise in each of these five surveys to get more directly at the real signal that is being sent. The upshot: The list is far more stable–and reliable–than most rankings published elsewhere, taking into account a massive wealth of quantitative and qualitative data captured in these major lists, from surveys of corporate recruiters, MBA graduates, deans and faculty publication records, to median GPA and GMAT scores of entering students, as well as the latest salary and employment statistics of alumni.

This year, 23 of the top 25 schools had either an identical position as they had last year or experienced a change of only one or two places. The stability in the list is reflective of the fact that from year to year, MBA programs rarely change dramatically. More consequential change may occur over a number of years, as a program improves and that improvement is recognized by others.

Yale was able to move up two spots this year because of a significant improvement on Forbes’ return-on-investment ranking. Yale gained seven places to rank 11th this year on the Forbes’ list, up from No. 18 two years ago. The school also did slightly better in The Economist’s ranking, rising to 13th best among U.S. MBA programs, from 14th a year earlier.

The most consequential changes among the Top 25 schools saw Notre Dame University’s Mendoza School jump 12 places to No. 24, while Michigan State University’s Broad School of Business rose 10 spots to No. 25. Both schools made those significant jumps as a result of gaining recognition from organizations that hadn’t ranked their MBA programs last year. Mendoza was ranked as the 45th best U.S. MBA program by The Financial Times, which did not have the school on its list last year, while Michigan State gained was ranked 22nd best in the U.S. by The Economist, which hadn’t ranked the school a year earlier.

Otherwise, schools in the Top 25 saw little to no movement. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business both declined by two spots each to ranks of 11th and 13th, respectively. The business schools at the University of Virginia, Cornell, UNC, the University of Texas, and the University of Washington all rose one place from last year.

Most of the action occurred further down the list. Double-digit ranking increases were racked up by the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business, which rose 12 places to No. 27; George Washington University jumped 10 places to No. 49; the University of Texas at Dallas also improved by 10 places to No. 51, and Babson College gained 10 spots to finish at No. 55.

On the other hand, many schools saw their rankings plunge, as is often the case in any year-end roundup. Brigham Young’s Marriott School of Business dropped 12 places to No. 43, while the business schools at both Tulane University and the University of Missouri both fell 10 places to place 63rd and 62nd, respectively. UC-Davis plunged 13 places this year, to rank 57th from 44th a year earlier, and Boston College’s Carroll School of Management fell 11 spots to end up at No. 59 from No. 48 last year.

More from Poets&Quants:

Poets&Quants’ complete ranking of the Top 100 U.S. MBA Programs

Poets&Quants’ complete ranking of the Top International MBA Programs

The Record Breaking MBA Pay At Stanford This Year

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