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U.S. business schools fight back as European rankings suffer

By Eliza Ridgeway, for CNN
One expert told CNN that many European business schools have seen student recruitment in London's financial sector "hurt."
One expert told CNN that many European business schools have seen student recruitment in London's financial sector "hurt."
  • A new MBA ranking shows U.S. schools taking the lead
  • Alumni salaries and job opportunities are a key measure of business school rankings
  • The turbulent job market has diminished traditional MBA jobs such as finance
  • Business schools increasingly target lesser-known industries for their graduates

London, England (CNN) -- Faced with a difficult job market and fluctuating currency rates, business schools around the world are having to think outside the box to keep their ratings, and their students, at the top of the pile.

The Economist's MBA ranking, released September 17, showed a notable upset, with American schools surging to the top of the list as European schools dropped.

In recent years Spain's Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa (IESE) and Switzerland's International Institute for Management Development (IMD) schools had taken turns in top place, trailed by American schools. The Economist had attributed this ranking in part to American schools suffering a backlash spurred by the financial crisis -- both in job availability, and for their perceived involvement in shaping Wall Street's top executives.

What changed this year? In the new list, the after-effects of an MBA were a key measure of which schools reached the top. Alumni salaries and speedy job placement made the difference in a year of sluggish hiring.

Carla Vargas Puccio, a spokeswoman for the University Navarra's IESE business school in Spain, said that many European business schools emphasize placing students in the financial sector, often in London, and have seen recruitment hurting in that area.

"MBAs obviously want to increase their salary dramatically, but there are also many who are interested in a career change or going to another country -- or going to a completely opposite sector," Puccio told CNN.

She said IESE's career services are increasingly looking into other sectors, including energy, technology and emerging markets, for students seeking riper opportunities outside a bank.

European business school graduates' average salaries are still higher than their American counterparts', at least in part because European students tend be older and have more work experience. But within Europe, average salaries fell this year, hurting schools' rankings. And job placement rates dropped more in Europe than in the United States, based on survey questions about finding a job after graduation.

Rankers such as Businessweek, the Financial Times and the U.S. News & World Report evaluate a host of factors including professors, campus facilities and alumni and recruiter networks for their lists. Differing methodologies can result in widely divergent results -- for instance, European schools showed significantly better in the Financial Times' January ranking than in the Economist's September ranking.

Janet Shaner, a director for IMD's MBA program in Lausanne, Switzerland also attributed the drop in European rankings to international currency changes.

"Between 2009 and 2008, for example, the euro declined five percent, the British pound declined 15 percent," she told CNN.

The Economist lists average post-MBA salaries in American dollars, which can be influenced by exchange rate swings. And European schools that might have been riding high three years ago when the dollar was depressed have seen a drop in their adjusted average salaries.

But William Ridgers, editor of the Economist's "Which MBA?" ranking list, told CNN that European salaries showed a decline in their original currencies as well. He said that the depressed financial jobs sector also connected to the salary decreases.

"There's been a traditional reliance in Europe on finance jobs, which tend to be much better paid than other jobs," Ridger said. "If there was a single reason for that relative drop (in average salary), I'd say they'd been affected by that more."

The general point here is that U.S. schools tend to be much richer than European schools.
--William Ridger

Conversely, the drop in traditional job opportunities helped University of Chicago's Booth School of Business shoot to the top of the list this year, rising from fourth place in 2009. Despite being known for placing students into finance jobs, Booth's career services pursued all 11 industries the Economist measured in its ranking, ranging from healthcare to nonprofits to the media.

"The general point here is that U.S. schools tend to be much richer than European schools," Ridgers told CNN. They have much bigger endowments, therefore when these problems hit they have more people in their career services department," he added.

Yet the ratings upset might not hurt European schools, even if it helps the new U.S. leaders.

"Even if you compare last year to this year, you have the same seven schools in the top seven, they just switched around their order," Shaner said. "Go back the last four years, you have Harvard dropping out but all others are still in the top six."

Although the rankings serve as a tool to introduce applicants to a wide range of options, some schools that perhaps should be making the list aren't yet.

"At the moment Asian schools are woefully underrepresented," Ridgers said. "There are a lot of schools in India and in China that are building up reputations."

Melbourne Business School and the University of Hong Kong's School of Business were the only Asian schools to make it into the Economist's top 50 schools this year, and Ahmedabad's Institute of Management was India's sole representative, at no. 85. Although the Economist lists only one Indian school this year, more than a million Indian students are estimated to be pursuing MBAs this year.

"At some point, the ranking organizations such as ourselves are going to have to make a decision about which are the big emerging players in Asia and Latin America which we want to include in our ranking," Ridgers told CNN.