Business Administration

The Top Executive MBA Programs Come with Big Benefits and High Price Tags

The Top Executive MBA Programs Come with Big Benefits and High Price Tags
Chances are good that an executive MBA from a top school will lead to lucrative career opportunities, but advancement can take time. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 5, 2020

Earning an EMBA is a smart way for experienced business professionals to boost their earning potential. Attending a top school will give you the most significant boost, but the cost of this degree may give you pause.

MBA and Executive MBA Programs You Should Consider

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Executive MBAs aren’t your average business-focused master’s degree. These programs—EMBAs, for short—are designed for managers who want to fast track their way into the c-suite. Graduating from an executive MBA program can net you a promotion, boost your earning potential, and help you avoid frustrating career plateaus—especially if you attend a program at a top business school.

In some disciplines, it doesn’t matter where you go to school. In the cutthroat executive world, however, a degree from Wharton or Kellogg or Booth can take you farther than one from a less-venerated school of business. Sometimes it pays to upgrade.

That said, one thing to keep in mind is that while getting an executive MBA from a top school will almost certainly open lucrative doors, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll earn big money. Think carefully before you enroll in a high-profile (or any) EMBA program. Read our rundown of what makes some executive MBA programs better than others, weigh the benefits against the costs, and make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your time in school.

In this article about the best executive MBA programs, we cover:

  • How do EMBAs differ from traditional MBA programs?
  • What do students in executive MBA programs study?
  • What features make some EMBA programs stand out?
  • Where can I find the best executive MBA programs?
  • Is it possible to earn a high-quality executive MBA online?
  • How long does it take to complete an EMBA program?
  • How much do the top executive MBA programs cost?
  • Will I earn more if I graduate from a top EMBA program?
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How do EMBAs differ from traditional MBA programs?

Traditional MBA programs vary widely. Some ask applicants to accrue a few years of experience before applying, while others accept students right out of business bachelor’s degree programs. There are specialized MBAs designed just for healthcare managers, music industry professionals, and TV producers.

EMBAs, on the other hand, are designed for mid- to high-level professionals with significant work experience. The average age of executive MBA students is 38 years old, and they usually have about 14 years of experience, including nine years in a management or supervisory role. It’s not unusual for a cohort to include senior managers, vice-presidents, and directors.

The biggest difference between executive MBAs and traditional MBA involves how they’re delivered. The curriculum in EMBA programs is delivered at a much faster pace—often in classes that take place only on evenings and weekends so students can continue working. Students in traditional MBA programs earn their degrees after two years of full-time study, while EMBA students earn their degrees in the same amount of time (or less) but spend fewer hours in the classroom.

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“Should I Get an Executive MBA?”

An Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) degree is typically earned in the midstages of a professional management career. They have the highest ten-year ROI of all business degrees—a staggering 1,747%. Over 30 percent of CEOs hold an MBA, the degree an EMBA program confers. (source)

The average Executive MBA earns about $205,000 before graduation and $233,000 after graduation. That represents a 13.5% increase in compensation, including both salary and bonuses. That average is calculated across programs, however. Prestigious programs are associated with the biggest paychecks. (source)

The cohort structure of executive MBA programs often leads to lucrative partnerships and business opportunities. After all, the average EMBA workgroup almost always includes senior managers, vice presidents, and directors. (source)

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What do students in executive MBA programs study?

Students in EMBA programs are preparing to step into top executive positions, so the curriculum in these programs is focused and high-level. Business fundamentals are rarely covered because students already have advanced business knowledge and skills.

There are often no specialization options or elective classes in EMBA programs. Instead, executive MBA students dig deep into topics like:

  • Accounting for executives
  • Applied economics for executives
  • Creating value through supply chains
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Financial management
  • Legal and ethical issues in business
  • Management consulting
  • Management statistics and data analysis
  • Managing technology and innovation
  • Managing the global business environment
  • Marketing strategy
  • Organizational behavior and leadership
  • Strategic communications

Executive MBA programs typically require students to complete a capstone project as the culmination of an experiential learning course. During the project period, entire classes usually partner with actual businesses to solve real-world business problems or challenges.

What features make some EMBA programs stand out?

Not all EMBAs are created equal. The best executive MBA programs have certain features in common, including:

  • Alumni groups and clubs: Connecting with other EMBA graduates in an active alumni network can lead to new opportunities.
  • Cohort-based workgroups: You’ll spend your EMBA years studying alongside the same group of students, forming meaningful connections—and maybe even business partnerships.
  • International immersion opportunities: Many of the top executive MBA programs include an international residency component designed to introduce students to global business challenges
  • Lifelong learning opportunities: Graduates of the best EMBA programs have access to high-quality courses, webinars, events, and other resources for life.
  • Recruitment programs: Recruiters race to place students graduating from high-ranking business programs into positions in corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.
  • Small class sizes: Top business schools only admit the best and brightest, and that means class sizes tend to be a lot smaller at these institutions.

Where can I find the best executive MBA programs?

According to US News and World Report, the top-ranked executive MBA programs in the country can be found at the following colleges and universities:

Is it possible to earn a high-quality executive MBA online?

There are strong online EMBA programs, but it’s worth noting that there’s minimal overlap between the top on-campus executive MBA programs and the top online EMBA programs. That said, don’t assume that an online executive MBA program will be faster or a watered-down version of on-campus EMBA programs. Online EMBA programs are every bit as rigorous and focused but are designed to meet the needs of students who can’t, or prefer not to, attend live classes. In its EMBA program materials, Howard University School of Business describes its highly-ranked program as “ideal for the working professional seeking a flexible option while continuing to maintain a career.”

Some of the top online executive MBA programs can be found at the following schools

Don’t be afraid to explore distance learning EMBA options. The best online executive MBA programs tend to be virtually identical to on-campus programs in terms of format, curriculum, international immersion experience requirements, and networking opportunities. Online executive MBA students almost always have access to the same alumni networks and recruitment programs.

How long does it take to complete an EMBA program?

Executive MBA programs might only meet on evenings and weekends, but they typically only take two years to complete. There are also accelerated EMBA programs—some of which can be completed in as little as 19 months (the length of Columbia University’s executive MBA). You typically won’t find the shortest executive MBA programs at the top business schools, however. In general, the fastest EMBA programs are offered by less notable colleges and universities. That’s because earning an EMBA over two years is already an extremely intensive undertaking. It would be almost impossible to offer a high-quality executive-level business degree in a year of nights and weekends.

How much do the top executive MBA programs cost?

The average cost of an EMBA falls somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000, but the top executive MBA programs typically cost a lot more. An EMBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will set you back more than $214,000. While it is rumored to be the most expensive EMBA in the world, executive MBAs from other top business schools are equally pricey. An EMBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business costs roughly $194,000. Columbia University’s executive MBA costs $208,680. And tuition for the Duke University Fuqua Global EMBA program is $148,000—a figure that starts to look affordable when you compare it to the cost of EMBA programs at other top business schools.

Your employer might agree to pay for some or all of your EMBA. That said, you should probably prepare to foot the bill. There was a time when executive MBAs were fully funded by employers who saw paying for graduate school as an investment in top employees, who, in turn, would stick around for many years after graduation, if not until retirement. Now companies are increasingly hesitant to pay for EMBAs for employees who may or may not stay with the company over the long term. In 2018, 45 percent of executive MBA students were entirely self-funded and 35 percent received only a partial sponsorship, so you can’t assume that your employer will step up to pay for your EMBA. Look into scholarships, financial aid, and student loans, and have a frank discussion with your employer about how your earning prospects might change after graduation.

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Will I earn more if I graduate from a top EMBA program?

Reputation definitely matters when it comes to how big of a salary boost an executive MBA will give you. The average executive MBA graduate receives a 13.5 percent increase in compensation (including salary and bonuses) after graduation, which isn’t too shabby. That’s roughly $205,000 annually before earning an EMBA versus $233,000 after graduation. A Wharton EMBA graduate, however, can expect a 70 percent increase in salary. Students attending the executive MBA program at University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business can expect to earn 62 percent more after graduation. And while salaries for graduates of MIT’s Sloan School of Business EMBA program only rise by 59 percent, they tend to have the highest average salaries overall (about $344,000).

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should enroll in one of the top executive MBA programs just because you have the qualifications. Companies are no longer as willing as they once were to pay for EMBA programs, and having a degree from a high-profile business school isn’t a guarantee that you’ll land a high-profile job. Chances are good that an executive MBA from a top school will lead to lucrative career opportunities, but advancement can take time. Don’t take on more debt than you’re comfortable carrying. You’ll probably be able to pay off your loan reasonably quickly with an executive MBA from NYU or Northwestern. However, there are no guarantees. Make sure your salary and career expectations are realistic before you begin applying.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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MBA and Executive MBA Programs You Should Consider

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