For the last three years, Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GBS) have led the Financial Times’ ranking of the world’s best master of business administration (MBA) programs. Stanford came in first in 2012, and Harvard topped the list in 2013 and 2014. In this year’s ranking, Harvard is still first, but Stanford is in fourth place after London Business School and University of Pennsylvania: Wharton

According to the Times Higher Education, the ranking “is based on a number of different factors including gender diversity and the international spread of students, but the heaviest weighting is placed on alumni salaries.” Based on the 2015 FT ranking, alumni from HBS and GBS have the highest salaries with $179,910 and $177,089, respectively—and they had the highest salaries in previous years as well. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each program, and how do Harvard and Stanford compare?

“To educate leaders that make a difference in the world”

“To educate leaders that make a difference in the world,” is the mission of the HBS MBA program. Harvard’s MBA program was founded in 1908 as the first program of its kind.  The MBA takes two years: the goal of the first year courses is to provide students with a foundation in “broad-based fundamentals.” During the second year, students can choose from over 90 courses in ten different categories. HBS emphasizes its “focus on real-world practice […] using the case method, which puts students into the role of decision makers every day.”

Today, there are more than 76,000 HBS alumni living in 167 countries with nearly 50 percent of alumni working in general management, 23.4 percent in finance and 23 percent in professional services. Famous HBS alumni include Facebook (FB) Chief Operating Office Sheryl Sandberg and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Alumni in particular praise HBS’s alumni network and the quality of the student population.

“Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”

“Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world,” is GBS’s slogan, and its mission is “to empower the worlds brightest students, to act – to take steps that will change the world.” A look at GBS alumni reveals that many have made an impact,  such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) founders William Hewlett and David Packard, whose garage served as the birthplace of both HP and Silicon Valley.  Stanford has close ties with Silicon Valley as other alumni went on to found Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO).

During the first year of the two-year MBA program, students will build their “general management knowledge and gain global experience.” Students can personalize their curriculum in their second year and can choose from over 70 courses in 18 different categories. The school maintains a small 6-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio and has several Nobel laureates on staff.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Company or Entrepreneur

The key difference between HBS and GBS appears to be that HBS graduates are slightly more focused on finance and professional services while GBS graduates seem to prefer entrepreneurship. This is illustrated the high portion—56 percent—of HBS alumni working in finance and professional services. Furthermore, HBS graduates make out a high number of CEOs: 25 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are alumni from HBS – by far the largest percentage of any business school. GBS alumni, on other hand, have an entrepreneurial focus. The Financial Times notes that GBS alumni have one of the highest “startup survival rate[s]” as Stanford is among the best in entrepreneurial teaching and its proximity to Silicon venture capital firms.

According to a 2011 business school alumni survey published in Forbes, 44 percent of GBS alumni founded their own businesses. The Forbes article also evaluated the return on investment (ROI) of the best business schools and stated that Stanford graduates were happier than Harvard graduates based on satisfaction in MBA education, job status, and preparedness compared to other MBA graduates. According to the article, HBS alumni felt prepared but expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs.

The alumni body shows minor differences in regard to their industries of employment: Stanford alumni mostly work in finance and IT; whereas Harvard alumni are more spread out across sectors with finance having the biggest share.

The 2016 student bodies vary slightly. HBS’s student body is 41 percent female compared to 36 percent at GBS. International students make up 35 percent of HBS’s population and 41 percent at GBS. US minorities comprise 25 percent of HBS’s student body and 21 percent at GBS.  Prior to enrolling in the HBS MBA program, 18 percent of students worked in consulting, 17 percent in private equity/venture capital, 14 percent in financial services, and 13 percent in high-tech/communications. At GBS, 20 percent of students had worked in consulting, 15 percent in private equity/venture capital, 15 percent in non-profit/government, and 13 percent in high-tech.

Differences between the two schools do appear when looking at students’ undergraduate majors. At Harvard, 41 percent of students have a finance or business background whereas only 14 percent of Stanford MBA students majored in finance or business. In fact, 48 percent of GBS students have a humanities / social sciences background.

The Bottom Line

Harvard offers a more diverse student body in regard to female and minority students, but Stanford has more students that enter the field from a non-business or finance undergraduate background. When looking at the kind of jobs each school’s alumni have, there’s a tendency for HBS alumni to work in management at large companies, while GBS alumni are more likely to start their own business. Both business schools offer world-class education and have great reputations.


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