Methodology for Fortune’s online MBA ranking

BY Lance LambertApril 24, 2021, 10:47 am
Martin Laksman

How do we know the MBA isn’t dead? Money talks. In 2020, recruiters reported shelling out $115,000 median salaries to top MBA graduates, or 70% more than they paid top bachelor’s degree recipients. Not only is the MBA alive and well—it’s thriving.

But how students get those degrees is changing. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, MBA classrooms moved from physical to virtual. While the end of the pandemic will bring back the classroom for some students, other MBA seekers don’t want to go back. Through our conversations and surveys of prospective students and current business leaders, Fortune believes online MBA education is only going to get bigger. That’s why we built our first-ever ranking of the nation’s Best Online MBAs.

Fortune invited more than 200 online MBA programs to participate. In all, 104 programs completed our questionnaire. That information, along with data we collected from companies and executives, was used as the core of our ranking. Our final ranking is made up of four components: Program Score, Fortune 1000 Score, Brand Score, and Prestige Score.

Program Score (55%)

In order to be ranked, Fortune required online MBA programs to complete a 29-question form. From that questionnaire, we calculated the Program Score. Getting an MBA isn’t just about learning management style or decision trees, it’s also an opportunity to build a network that will last for decades. Much of that network comes from fellow MBA classmates. That’s why Fortune measured the academic strength of incoming students (a.k.a. your peers). We did this by factoring average undergraduate GPA and average GMAT scores of incoming students into the Program Score.

Sure, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was incredibly successful after dropping out of Stanford’s MBA program. But for the vast majority of students, you’ll want to complete the program. That’s why Fortune added one-year retention rate and graduation rate (graduated at least within three years of program entry) into the Program Score.

Finally, we factored in student body size. Simply put: Demand matters. If schools aren’t successful, they won’t be able to continue to attract and graduate top students year in and year out. Not to mention, a larger student body also means a larger alumni network.

Fortune 1000 Score (17.5%)

Alumni networks matter. And who better to have in your school’s alumni network than CEOs? That’s why Fortune looked at the number of each school’s MBA alumni who are executives (C-suite only) at Fortune 1000 companies. This includes everyone from CEOs to CFOs to CIOs. The more Fortune 1000 C-level placement, the higher the school’s Fortune 1000 Score.

A school’s score includes Fortune 1000 C-levels who graduated with an MBA from the school (regardless of the type of MBA program). Why? Fortune believes that the business school offering the online MBA also matters. As online education continues its upward trajectory, we foresee more powerhouse business schools creating or expanding online offerings.

(Note: The Fortune 1000 are the 1,000 largest U.S. publicly traded companies ranked by revenues, as compiled by Fortune.)

Brand Score (20%)

Fortune partnered with Ipsos to survey thousands of business professionals and hiring managers to get their thoughts on specific B-schools. This metric looks at business school brands not just their online programs. After all, when a hiring manager looks at your résumé they’re going to associate an MBA with their opinion of the school—not necessarily that specific online MBA program. Fortune sought to measure that.

Ipsos deployed a survey methodology similar to the one it would use if a consumer brands company asked it to evaluate the company’s brand strength. For this research, Ipsos interviewed a total of 2,500 professionals. These professionals work in a corporate role, have attended college and/or an institution of higher education, and know at least two of the schools in our selection. Ipsos completed the fieldwork between March 16 and March 24 of 2021. The total length of the interview was 13 minutes. The results yielded a 95% confidence interval, which gives us a maximum ±1.96% margin of error. This analysis was done on a regional basis. The exception being the nation’s top 20 business schools (according to U.S. News & World Report’s latest ranking), which we also measured on a national basis.

The final score produced is a business schools’ Attitudinal Equity (AE) measurement. That tells us, according to Ipsos, “how much a group of people want to recruit from the university. It is the university’s share of mind.” (For more on Attitudinal Equity scores, go here.)

Prestige Score (7.5%)

Unlike full-time traditional MBA rankings, the online MBA ranking space isn’t as crowded. But there are a few good rankings. Fortune sought to account for some of their clever methodologies by aggregating those top rankings into our Prestige Score. Whether it’s fair or not, how the outside world views these schools is to some degree a result of the existing rankings. We sought to measure that. We included online MBA rankings from the Princeton Review, Poets & Quants, and U.S. News & World Report.

Programs that would like to participate next year, please email Send us your name, title, and appropriate contacts.