With coronavirus shutting down on-campus education, its digital counterpart has been evolving fast — and online MBAs are gaining in reputation.

Business schools are creating more online MBAs and improving existing programmes. This year, more schools than ever participated in the FT’s ranking of these courses, although little has changed at the top of the table.

Warwick Business School retains the top slot for the fourth year in a row. The main reason is the salaries that its alumni command: an average of $207,725 three years after graduation. The school also ranks highest for alumni career progression.

FT Online MBA ranking 2021 — top 15

Find out which schools are in our ranking of Online MBA degrees. Learn how the table was compiled below (methodology) and view a list of Online MBA programmes in our directory Also, read the rest of our coverage at www.ft.com/online-learning.

In second place, also for the fourth consecutive year, is Spain’s IE Business School. It hosts the highest share of international students, at 92 per cent, and of overseas board members, at 96 per cent. For the third year, IE also ranks highest for corporate social responsibility, measured by the number of credits from core courses covering CSR topics.

The UK’s Imperial College Business School, in third place, is the highest new entrant. Its alumni achieve the second-highest average salary, at $184,899, and the school is ranked top for international mobility: based on where graduates were before their MBA, on completion, and now.

Another newcomer is University of Utah: David Eccles. The US school is ranked 13th overall and comes first for alumni assessments of the interaction between students, and for the availability of faculty.

Indiana University’s Kelley School has underlined the strengths of its careers service, online programme delivery and research — categories in which it repeats last year’s top placing.

Alumni of Italy’s Politecnico di Milano School of Management report the highest salary increase three years after graduation — 45 per cent — and the school comes third for CSR.

Although there are differences in the way the percentage increase in salary is calculated in the FT rankings for online MBAs and for full-time MBAs, the data provide some interesting comparisons. The average rise for the online courses is 29 per cent, compared with 123 per cent for the top 15 full-time programmes in the 2021 global MBA ranking.

This reflects students’ demographic profile. Full-time MBA students tend to be in their late 20s and may enjoy rapid promotion. Online MBA students are more likely to be in their mid-30s and more established, so their salary is more likely to plateau.

Bar chart of Percentage of alumni scores out of 10 for key course aspects showing How effective are schools at delivering courses online?
Bar chart of Graduates' score out of 10 for various network benefits showing Campus-based MBA alumni networks are rated highly than online ones

For such students, who may also be juggling significant family and professional responsibilities, flexibility and lower tuition costs are great advantages of the online format. Alumni report that schools are doing a good job in delivering content and exams online, though teamwork and interaction with other students score less well.

Alumni networks for online MBAs are also rated lower than for full-time MBAs. One finding is that, though most alumni studied purely online, those on “mixed-mode” programmes, with some in-person content, were likely to make more career progress subsequently: just over 24 per cent of “mixed-mode” alumni reported large progress in their careers — defined by seniority and size of company — compared with just over 17 per cent of “online-only” alumni.

Chart showing that most people chose to study online-only
Chart on how alumni rate schools’ teaching

Ranked schools performed well in a number of the subjects taught: general management and organisational behaviour have been consistently highly rated by alumni for the past five years. Fintech and ecommerce training received lower scores, as did IT, though this is the sector that most alumni work in.

This year’s ranking is based on surveys from schools and alumni who completed their online MBA in 2017. Although 30 schools took part, the alumni response rate was too low in 15 cases to be representative, so these were ineligible to qualify for the final ranking.

Additional reporting by Sam Stephens.

Key to ranking table

• Weighting percentages are shown in brackets below.

• For the three gender-related criteria, schools that have 50:50 (male: female) composition receive the highest score.

Salary today US$ (20): average alumnus salary three years after graduation, $ PPP equivalent (see methodology).†

Salary increase (10): percentage increase in alumnus salary in current job versus three years ago on graduation.†

Value for money (3): calculated according to alumnus salary, tuition, fees and other costs.†

Career progress (4): progression in alumni seniority and the size of company they now work for, versus three years ago on graduation.†

Aims achieved (4): extent to which alumni fulfilled their goals for taking an online MBA.†

Careers service (4): effectiveness of school careers service for career counselling, personal development, networking events and recruitment, as rated by alumni.†

Programme delivery (5): how alumni rate the online delivery of live teaching sessions, other teaching materials and online exams.†

Online interaction (10): how alumni rate the interaction between students, teamwork, and availability of faculty.†

Female faculty (3): percentage of female members of faculty.

Female students (3): percentage of female students on MBA programme.

Women on board (1): percentage of female members on school advisory board.

International faculty (4): percentage of faculty who are not citizens of the country where they are employed.

International students (4): percentage of current students who are not citizens of the country in which the school is situated.

International board (2): percentage of board who are not citizens of the country in which the school is situated.

International mobility (5): based on alumni citizenship and the countries where they worked before their MBA, on completion, and three years after.†

Faculty with doctorates (5): percentage of full-time faculty with a doctoral degree.

Corporate social responsibility rank (3): proportion of credits from core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues.

FT research rank (10): calculated according to the number of articles published by a school’s current full-time faculty members in 50 academic and practitioner journals between January 2018 and October 2020. The rank combines the absolute number of publications with the number weighted relative to the faculty’s size.

Additional notes

The following data are for information only and are not used in the ranking calculations.

Course tuition and fees (local currency): Programme tuition and fees paid by the most recently enrolled class to complete the programme, in the currency of the country in which the school is situated. Figure shows weighted average.

Average completion time (years): The average amount of time students take to complete the programme.

Online teaching materials (%): Percentage of programme teaching materials that are delivered online.

Overall satisfaction: Average evaluation by alumni of the course, scored out of 10.

Includes data for class of 2017 and one or two preceding classes if available.

How the Financial Times Online MBA 2021 ranking is compiled

This is the eighth annual edition of the Financial Times ranking of the best online MBA programmes worldwide. A total of 30 schools took part in the 2021 edition.

All participating business schools must meet the FT’s strict entry criteria. The school must be accredited by AACSB or Equis and programmes must have run for four consecutive years. At least 70 per cent of the content must be delivered online. The participants must also pass a selection process before enrolling and an examination process before graduating.

Data were collected through two online surveys — the first was completed by participating schools and the second by their alumni who finished their Online MBA in 2017. Some 733 of them completed our questionnaire — a response rate of about 19 per cent.

The ranking has 18 criteria. Alumni responses inform nine criteria that together contribute 65 per cent of the total weight. Another eight criteria are based on the school data, accounting for 25 per cent. The remaining criterion, the research rank, counts for 10 per cent.

Alumni-informed criteria are based on data collected in the past three years. Responses from the 2021 survey carry 50 per cent of the total weight and those from 2020 and 2019 account for 25 per cent each. Excluding salary criteria, if only two years’ data are available, the weighting is split 60:40, if data are from 2021 and 2020, or 70:30, if data are from 2021 and 2019. For salary figures, the weighting is 50:50 for two years’ data.

The first two alumni criteria are average income three years after graduation and the salary increase compared with their pay on graduation, with respective weights of 20 per cent and 10 per cent. For the latter, half of the weight applies to the absolute increase and half to the percentage increase (the published figure). Salaries are converted to US dollars using the International Monetary Fund purchasing power parity rates published in October 2020.

The salaries of non-profit and public sector workers and full-time students are removed, as are the highest and lowest salaries for each school, in order to calculate a normalised average. Finally, salaries are weighted to reflect differences between industry sectors.

“Value for money” for each school is calculated by dividing average alumni salary three years after graduation by the programme’s total cost, including tuition fees and other expenses. Any financial help given to alumni is subtracted from the total cost.

School criteria include the diversity of staff, board members and students by gender and nationality. For gender criteria, schools with a 50:50 composition score the highest.

The corporate social responsibility category is based on the proportion of credits from core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues. It carries a weight of three per cent.

The research rank is based on the number of articles by full-time faculty in 50 internationally recognised academic and practitioner journals. The rank combines the number of publications from January 2018 to October 2020, with the figure weighted relative to the size of the faculty.

The Online MBA ranking is a relative listing. Schools are ranked against each other by calculating a Z-score for each criterion. The Z-score is a statistic that shows where a score lies in relation to the mean. These scores are then weighted as outlined in the ranking key and added together for a final score.

After removing the schools that did not meet the response rate threshold from the alumni survey, a first version is calculated using all remaining schools. The school at the bottom is removed and a second version is calculated, and so on until the top 10 have been identified. The top 10 schools are ranked accordingly to produce the 2021 list.

Judith Pizer of Pizer-MacMillan acted as the FT’s database consultant. The FT research rank was calculated using Clarivate Analytics data from the Web of Science, an abstract and citation database of research literature.