Best Colleges For Econ & Business Majors?

A new global ranking from U.S. News puts Harvard University in first place among all universities and first place in economics and business

Would-be business school students often wonder how U.S. schools stack up against the growing competition from international rivals. But it’s often hard to get a true fix on how the University of Oxford, for example, truly compares with Harvard Business School because those institutions are so dramatically different from each other.

When the Financial Times and The Economist produce “global” rankings, they often favor non-U.S. schools because their methodologies are meant to encourage and support advertising revenue from European and Asian schools which are made to look far more competitive with U.S. institutions than they actually are.

Today’s U.S. News ranking of the best global universities, while still flawed, may offer a better clue as to how higher education players in the world really stack up against each other. Overall, of the top 25 universities, only six are outside the U.S.: No. 5 Oxford, No. 7 Cambridge, No. 17 Imperial College London, No. 20 University of Toronto, and No. 25 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The top four universities are all in the U.S.: Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and UC-Berkeley.

A RANKING LARGELY BASED ON ACADEMIC RESEARCH IN ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS

In releasing what is U.S. News’ fourth global university ranking, the publication also puts out more specific subject rankings, including one for economics and business. The methodology only takes into account academic research, which can, in fact, run counter to ithe quality of the student experience. That’s because institutions that focus so exclusively on research often do so at the expense of classroom teaching, the accessibility of faculty to students, and the co-curricular activities that are so essential to personal development and to gaining a network of support well beyond graduation.

Still, it’s fascinating to see what schools do best when it comes to their research chops in economics and business, a broader category than business alone. According to U.S. News, the top universities in the world for economics and business are Harvard University, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, and UC-Berkeley. The only non-U.S. school to make the top ten is the London School of Economics, ranked ninth behind the top five and No. 6 University of Chicago, No. 7 Columbia University, No. 8 New York University. The University of Michigan lands in the tenth spot.

There are a lot of surprises up and down the list, however. When it comes to economics and business, for example, Oxford, at a rank of 14th, ranks significantly better than its rival Cambridge at 23rd. Arizona State University and Michigan State University both merit Top 25 status, coming in at 24th and 25th, respectively. The Netherlands can boast two schools on the Top 25, with Erasmus University in Rotterdam in 15th place and Tilburg University in 18th.

WITHOUT A B-SCHOOL, PRINCETON RANKS 16TH ON THE BASIS OF ITS ECONOMICS FACULTY

London Business School, generally regarded as one of the two best European business schools with INSEAD, shows up at a rank of 20th, though it places 438th on the overall global list. INSEAD, its neck-and-neck rival as the top European business school, has a rank of 33rd and is 584th on the bigger global ranking. Princeton University, one of two Ivy League institutions without a business school, comes in at a rank of 16th on the basis of its strong economics department. The University of Minnesota has a truly impressive showing, ranking 22nd in econ and business, well above many other resource-rich universities.

These subject-specific rankings – which are not of academic majors, departments or specific schools at universities, such as business schools or medical schools – are based on academic research performance in a given subject. U.S. News explains that is uses “various bibliometric measures, including publications and citations, as well as indicators for global and regional reputation in each specific subject” to come up with its ranking. The citation data comes from the Web of Science, which tracks over 12,000 influential scholarly journals worldwide, for the five-year period from 2010-2014. U.S. News found only 57 universities with faculty that have published 500 or more papers on economics and business in these journals and 211 with 250 or more papers. Overall, the magazine ranks 200 universities on these two subjects.

Besides the obvious flaw of creating a ranking centered mostly on research, the methodology has one other important disadvantage. It favors large universities that employ lots of faculty over smaller institutions with fewer professors. Obviously, the more faculty you have pumping out articles that appear in scholarly journals the better off you’ll appear on this list. So it’s possible that the faculty of smaller colleges could in some cases be more productive than some of the higher-ranked institutions on the U.S. News list.

UNDERLYING INDEX SCORES ARE MORE REVEALING THAN THE ACTUAL NUMERICAL RANKS

There is another annual ranking of business school research but it is put together by a single school—the University of Texas-Dallas—which tends to rank suspiciously high on that list to suggest that the journals were cherry picked to put Dallas in such a favorable light. One advantage that ranking has, however, is that you can adjust the ranking for the size of the faculty. The U.S. News alternative at least doesn’t carry with it the possibility that someone stacked the odds in one’s favor.

Yet, when it comes to mainly academic research, far more revealing than a school’s numerical rank may well be its underlying index score, which shows exactly how far ahead or behind a school might be on the list. Harvard’s number one spot is shockingly dominant compared to the number two school, MIT, which has an index score of 90.3, some 9.7 points below Harvard. The London School of Economics, the only non-U.S. school to make the economics and business Top 10 list in ninth place, has an index school of 78.8, a full 21.2 points behind Harvard. The LSE, moreover, ranks far down on U.S. News’ overall global list at 261st.

In comparision, on U.S. News’ U.S.-centric MBA ranking, the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 schools is zero. That’s because Harvard and Wharton’s MBA programs were in a dead tie at first when the list came out earlier this year. The difference between the first MBA program and the tenth rated program, another tie with Yale and Columbia’s MBA programs locked in tenth place, was just ten points versus the 22.3-point spread between Harvard and Michigan on economics and business. The upshot: When it comes to academic research at least, the differences among the schools are far more substantial and, therefore, more statistically meaningful.

ONLY BIG BRANDS WITH BIG BUDGETS CAN PLAY IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES OF THE RESEARCH GAME

Another way to interpret the list is to gauge the likelihood of interdisciplinary studies for business school students. The higher the overall global rank of a university, for example, the more likely it is that business and economics students can gain greater exposure to other core disciplines related to business whether in health, the environment, law or other subjects. For many years, business schools were often isolated standalone entities on their university campuses. That is no longer true as an increasing number of business school deans break through and create opportunities for their students and others to take advantage of the wider university offerings. Schools that are not part of those networks are at a significant disadvantage in the future.

Ultimately, what this research-centric ranking may show is the amount of resources behind each of the brands on this global list. Only schools with big budgets can afford to play the academic research game at these high levels. But that often means these same schools have money for lots of other things that impact the quality of a student’s experience in a given program. Nonetheless, it must be stated again: Schools that put pressure on their professors to get published in journals with cult-like followings do not exclusively train the best leaders in business nor do they create the best student experiences.

(See following page for how universities rank on research worldwide)

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.