Many of the top brass in c-suites around the world got started on the road to high-level leadership by earning an executive MBA (EMBA). The EMBA is not your typical MBA program; it's an advanced business degree pathway designed for mid- to high-level executives who have significant work experience. Other distinguishing traits:
Traditionally, EMBA programs have been intense, on-campus programs that often included international immersion components. Today, 55 percent of EMBA programs offer some kind of distance learning option, whether it's a hybrid mix of online and live classes or coursework that can be completed entirely online.
There are still relatively few fully online EMBA programs—and almost none at the top business schools in the US—but expect that to change. As more colleges and universities embrace distance learning formats, EMBA programs (which are largely designed for optimal flexibility for dedicated working professionals) will inevitably go full remote.
In this article about the best online executive MBA programs, we cover:
Executive MBAs aren't just part-time MBA programs for business professionals who can't or would prefer not to take a sabbatical to earn a master's degree. These specialized Master of Business Administration programs are designed for serious students who want to be able to thrive in top executive positions. The curricula in EMBA programs assume that students already have a certain degree of advanced business knowledge and skills and are comfortable overseeing organizations and personnel. Executive MBA programs dive deeper into topics like:
Most EMBA programs require students to complete a capstone project as part of an experiential learning course. In such courses, students often have the opportunity to partner with real-world companies to solve a specific business problem or challenge.
The most significant difference between traditional MBAs and executive MBAs is that EMBA programs (whether delivered on- campus, online, or in a hybrid format) are typically geared toward seasoned business professionals. Many MBA programs accept students with a few years of professional experience, or even none at all. Most executive MBA programs, in contrast, only accept applicants with 10+ years of business and management experience.
Executive MBA programs also tend to offer a degree of flexibility that traditional full-time programs don't. EMBAs attract seasoned professionals who are looking for professionally-focused master's degree programs that can accommodate the needs of busy senior managers. Classes are often held on evenings and weekends, and international residencies are held during summer or mid-year breaks.
Another difference is that executive MBAs tend to be structured around cohort-based curricula and workgroups. You'll work closely with the students in your class—in some cases, taking every class in the program together. Group work is an essential part of EMBA programs, and the connections made in and out of class can lead to business collaborations after graduation.
Finally, while not all executive MBA programs are more rigorous than traditional MBA programs, they do tend to be much faster-paced. Classes might cover the same material, but it's presented more rapidly, and EMBA programs offer fewer specialization and elective options. That way, students focus on a set curriculum, and cohort groups stay cohesive throughout the program.
Don't make the mistake of assuming that an online executive MBA program will be more flexible. As Howard University School of Business puts it in its EMBA program materials: "The online format is ideal for the working professional seeking a flexible option while continuing to maintain a career." That doesn't mean executive MBA programs that take place partly or entirely online are self-directed or don't include live classes and real-time discussions. In fact, most online executive MBA programs are virtually identical to on-campus programs in terms of format, curriculum, international immersion experience requirements, and networking opportunities. Online executive MBA students also have access to the same alumni networks and recruitment programs that on-campus students do.
As is the case with advanced degree programs across disciplines, the cost of an online executive MBA varies widely by program. There are EMBA programs that charge $500 per credit and programs with per-credit tuition of $1,600 or more. You should plan to spend at least $40,000 for an online executive MBA, but if you're attending one of the top online executive MBA programs, you'll pay well over $100,000 before graduation.
The good news is that almost 50 percent of EMBA students receive some form of tuition reimbursement or sponsorship from their employers. Online EMBA students are eligible for the same scholarships, fellowships, and loans as on-campus learners.
Admission requirements for online executive MBA programs vary, but in general, applicants have to:
Colleges and universities with online executive EMBA programs frequently require applicants to submit GMAT or GRE scores. Be aware, though, that standardized test scores and undergraduate grade point averages are often less important than work and leadership experience. Schools want to see proof that incoming students have the knowledge and the commitment necessary to keep up in these intensive programs.
Some of the top online executive MBA programs can be found at the following schools:
Earning an EMBA doesn't have to mean going deep into debt. There are affordable online executive MBA programs at these schools:
There aren't many accelerated online executive MBA programs—possibly because these programs are relatively new—but it's possible to graduate with an EMBA in less than 20 months at the following schools:
Traditionally, earning an executive MBA took two years of part-time, concentrated study. Many online EMBA programs follow the same format, requiring students to complete 35 to 65 credit hours of work over roughly 24 months.
A growing number of colleges and universities, however, are now designing accelerated executive MBAs that can be completed in as little as one year. In some cases, these accelerated programs require students to complete the same amount of work as two-year programs but don't break in the summer or mid-year. Instead, students continue studying at the same rate from enrollment through graduation.
Assuming an online executive MBA program graduate is aiming for a top executive position, the answer is pretty good. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs for top executives will grow over the next 10 years, though not more quickly than the average across all positions. That said, top executives face very stiff competition for jobs. Having an MBA isn't a guarantee that you'll land one of these coveted seats at the c-suite table, but it will definitely increase your chances of becoming CEO someday. Once you do, you can expect to earn close to $200,000—if not a lot more with bonuses, profit sharing, and commission.
"The payoff of an EMBA is pretty clear and unchanging," says Mark Nelson, dean of Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. There are hard numbers to back up his assertion. A recent Executive MBA Council survey found that EMBA students earned $205,008 per year before their programs and $232,663 after graduation—a difference of 13.5 percent. Nearly half received a promotion while enrolled in an executive MBA program.
Again, there are no guarantees, but these figures suggest that enrolling in one of the top online executive MBA programs—or even one of the affordable ones—might just be the way to take your business career to the next level.
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