An Executive MBA (EMBA) isn’t merely an MBA for executives. It’s a unique degree designed for mid-career professionals looking to advance to the top ranks. Many already hold graduate degrees in other areas and hope to supplement their expertise with management and leadership skills.
Some top schools have already launched online EMBA programs; others are likely to do the same in years to come. Online education was already booming before the COVID pandemic turned every student into a distance learner. That was before the pandemic forced schools to learn how to deliver content online. Look for them to take advantage of what they’ve learned even after the world ‘returns to normal.’
As with everything, there are upsides and downsides to pursuing an EMBA online. This article discusses the benefits and challenges of pursuing an EMBA online by addressing these issues:
A Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is a graduate-level professional degree in business and management. Although it is not impossible to earn an MBA without first earning an undergraduate degree, the vast majority of MBA students hold a bachelor’s degree. Their undergraduate degrees may be in a business field, but that is typically not required. Students can attend MBA degree programs on a full-time or part-time basis. Programs are delivered on-campus (sometimes called a traditional MBA), online, or in a hybrid on-campus/online format.
MBA programs train students for various roles at the mid- and upper-levels of management across a range of industries, including:
An MBA provides generalized instruction through coursework covering many business disciplines, including:
Some programs offer only a general MBA; others allow students to specialize in an area of concentration. They do this by completing a sequence of elective courses after they have completed a required curriculum (often referred to as a core curriculum). Many business schools offer concentrations in these areas:
Many MBA curricula include an internship or practicum, through which students gain hands-on, real-world experience solving business problems for actual companies.
Most MBAs regard the degree as terminal, i.e., they do not aspire to a higher-level degree. That said, MBAs can continue to doctoral-level study, and some (admittedly, relatively few) do. Students can pursue either a PhD in a business field of their choosing. A PhD is an academic doctorate that typically leads to work in academia (as a professor) and/or in advanced theoretical research. MBAs are more likely to pursue the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), a professional doctorate most frequently held by discipline specialists in the corporate world.
People typically pursue an MBA for one (or more) of the following reasons:
Once you have earned an MBA, you are better positioned to:
MBA programs teach business and management fundamentals. This is the primary way they differ from master’s degree programs in business disciplines: an MBA provides instruction across business disciplines. In contrast, MS and MA programs focus more precisely on a particular business discipline.
No two MBA programs are precisely the same, of course. Most, however, build student skill sets in:
Employers value MBAs because they know from experience that an MBA from a reputable program reliably predicts employee performance and value. You don’t technically need an MBA to succeed in the business world, and an MBA won’t guarantee your success. However, it will improve your chances considerably by enhancing your skills and competencies and impressing potential employers to create opportunities.
According to The Wall Street Journal, career-switchers can double their salaries by earning an MBA. QS reports that full-time MBA students “recoup their business school investment in 44 months” after graduation; beyond that, it’s all pure profit. A 2019 report from Relish Careers found that MBAs earned nearly 50 percent more in their first post-MBA positions than they did in their pre-MBA jobs. In short: an MBA is valuable because it can turbocharge your earnings. It will also vastly broaden your skill set, allowing you to accomplish more in your profession.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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An Executive Master of Business Adminstration (EMBA) is a graduate business degree designed for business leaders who need the degree to further their careers. Some have risen through the ranks through expertise in their field—data analytics, perhaps, or information technology, or human resources, or digital marketing. Others have advanced through sweat and talent but have gotten as far as those will take them. Regardless of how they got there, these business professionals are in the middle of their careers, have achieved tangible successes, and need more training and credentials to advance further.
Most EMBA candidates have at least ten years of professional experience, much of it in a supervisory/managerial role. Many programs won’t accept students with less experience, in fact. EMBA programs tend to operate on a part-time schedule—their students almost all have full-time jobs, after all—with classes convening on weekends or, sometimes, on weekday evenings. As you’ll see below, the EMBA is a lot more than a conventional MBA for executives.
No, an EMBA and MBA are different in important ways. Because an EMBA is designed for experienced professionals, its curriculum varies significantly from a conventional MBA curriculum. For one thing, an EMBA omits foundation courses that traditional MBA programs typically include. EMBA curricula assume their students already know the basics of business communications, personnel management, and introductory economics. They skip ahead to the harder stuff.
Even when EMBA programs address the same subjects as conventional MBA programs, they do so at a more advanced level. EMBA courses tend to have names like:
Words like “management,” “executive,” and “leadership” feature prominently in these course titles because their focus is on how these concepts apply to top-level management challenges.
By the way, don’t confuse an Executive MBA with a Professional MBA (PMBA). The PMBA is much more like a traditional MBA program designed for full-time professionals at an earlier stage in their careers. The average age of a student in a PMBA program is 28; in an EMBA program, it’s 38.
EMBAs differ appreciably from traditional MBAs:
EMBA programs are designed for a particular audience: mid-career professionals with significant managerial and supervisory experience. The degree’s target demographic is substantially smaller than the audience for a general MBA. There aren’t enough potential EMBA students to fill classes at every existing MBA program. That’s one reason that some MBA programs decide not to offer an EMBA.
Some locations are much more conducive to EMBA programs than others. MBA programs in big cities likely have little trouble meeting enrollment goals. In contrast, those in more remote locations are less likely to be surrounded by aspiring upper-level business executives.
Some schools feel the EMBA isn’t the right solution for executives and instead offer alternatives. Others fear that an Executive MBA would dilute the value of their full-time MBA. Stanford University is one such institution. It offers several executive education programs but no EMBA.
The heart of a school’s online and on-campus Executive MBA programs—i.e., the curricula—will likely be identical or nearly identical. Schools typically decide to take a program online after enjoying success with it on-campus. Having already developed a winning program, they rarely set out to reimagine the program for online delivery. Rather, they look to replicate their on-campus success in an online environment. As a result, online Executive MBAs hew closely to their on-campus counterparts regarding content and requirements. Both are likely to include immersion experiences abroad and practicum projects with corporate partners.
Online EMBAs differ from in-person EMBAs primarily in their delivery method. In-person EMBA programs meet in person, typically on weekends and/or weekday evenings. Lectures are delivered live. Online EMBA programs meet online, usually via the now-ubiquitous teleconferencing app Zoom (thanks, COVID!). These live sessions are typically reserved for discussion, problem review, and Q&A sessions. Lectures are typically prerecorded, accessible to students 24/7. Many people believe that this model—sometimes referred to as the “flipped classroom” —represents a more efficient use of both students’ and instructors’ time.
One thing is clear: more schools offer online EMBA programs with each passing year. In 2019, more than half of all EMBA programs offered distance learning options, and more than 90 percent had incorporated the technology that drives online education, i.e., electronic delivery of course content and materials. These trends strongly suggest that the days when people asked, “Does online education work?” have passed. The jury is in, and the verdict is: it works.
Traditional MBA programs—both on-campus and online—typically tout their job placement statistics. EMBA programs often don’t. The reason for this is that so many EMBA students are already happily employed. They aren’t looking to start a career at a new company; they want to advance higher and faster with their current employer. For a considerable number of EMBA students, job placement statistics simply aren’t necessary.
For this reason, it’s hard to quantify any difference between online and on-campus EMBA career advancement results. The fact that business professionals continue to enroll in these programs indicates that the results are satisfactory, as does the fact that approximately one in seven EMBA students attends a program at their employer’s expense.
The Executive MBA Council (EMBAC) surveys EMBA students annually. In 2020, its survey found that EMBA graduates netted a 14.1 percent increase in salary (from $169,269 to $193,200) and bonuses when they completed their programs. Additionally, 39 percent received a promotion and 53 percent saw their responsibilities increased while studying for an EMBA.
What characteristics define a typical EMBA student? Let’s look at the student demographics for some top EMBA programs. The typical University of Pennsylvania Wharton School EMBA is 37 years old, has 12 years of professional experience, is White and male (28 percent are female, 12 percent are underrepresented minorities), and earns about $215,000 annually. Nearly half already hold an advanced degree.
The typical EMBA at Columbia University‘s Columbia Business School is 32 years old, has 9 years of professional experience, is male (45 percent are female), works in financial services (35 percent do; technology is the second-largest feeder industry at 11 percent), and is partially sponsored by their employer.
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Sloan School of Management, the average students is 41 years old, has 17 years of professional experience, and holds a director-level or above position. More than half hold an advanced degree; nearly half are international students.
Not all EMBA programs require such extensive experience. The EMBA program at the University of Arkansas‘s Sam M. Walton College of Business are eligible for admission with only two years experience; with five years experience, they qualify for a GMAT/GRE waiver.
Students pursue an online EMBA rather than an on-campus EMBA because they prefer the convenience of online study. Some may live so far from their chosen school that travel to and from campus would represent a significant challenge. Others may simply be too busy to attend in-person classes regardless of how close they live to campus. Bottom line: they want an EMBA but would prefer to earn it from home rather than on-campus.
Like EMBA students in on-campus programs, online EMBA students tend to be older and more experienced than their online MBA counterparts.
While online EMBAs are still relatively rare—at least compared to online traditional MBA programs—quite a few exist already, with more schools adding programs each year. As previously noted, many EMBA programs have started adding digital components to their on-campus programs. That’s a common first step toward launching an online program.
What can you expect from an online EMBA? We discuss each of the key elements below.
Online content can be delivered in one of two ways. Synchronous content transmits live; it includes live classes and study groups facilitated through Zoom. Asynchronous content is accessible anytime, 24/7. It can include recorded lectures, third-party video, readings, bulletin boards, simulations and other applications, project assignments, and quizzes and exams.
Most EMBA programs offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content. A few programs designed primarily for the convenience of busy students may offer 100 percent asynchronous content. However, most institutions prefer at least some live interaction and so include it in their course design.
Again, every online EMBA is different. Some offer only cohort-based lockstep programs in which all courses are required and must be completed in a specified sequence. Other programs accommodate electives, but even then, they vary. Some offer a few elective options, and some offer more than a few. Some allow students to combine electives to create an area of specialization; others confer only a general EMBA.
All EMBA programs include at least some required courses, collectively known as the core curriculum.
The titles of EMBA core curriculum courses vary from one school to another, but all cover—at an advanced level—fundamental business concepts in the following areas:
The EMBA curriculum at Howard University, for example, consists of the following required courses:
EMBA programs take varied approaches to elective courses. Some, like Howard University, don’t make room for any; their programs are designed to deliver the core knowledge and skills every upper-level manager and executive should master. Others devote most of the curriculum to core studies but carve out space for students to pursue specializations. Some universities allow—and encourage—students to take classes outside the business school related to their focus areas. For example, the online EMBA program at the University of California – Berkeley‘s Haas School of Business offers students the chance to take electives from the university’s schools of engineering, law, public policy, and information.
Most EMBA programs do not offer areas of specialization. There’s a good reason for this: most EMBAs enter the program as specialists in their area already. Their goal in pursuing the EMBA is not to develop new skills but to supplement their expertise with the management and leadership skills they need to advance their careers.
That said, some online EMBA programs offer areas of specialization. For example, Duke University‘s Fuqua School of Business allows students to choose from five concentration areas:
Most EMBA programs include in-person immersion experiences. These events—often scheduled over an extended weekend—require students to participate in exercises and activities applying what they’ve learned to case studies and real-life situations. Many programs schedule immersions in international business centers. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology‘s Saunders College of Business schedules its annual international EMBA seminar each October. Past locations have included Dubai, Ho Chi Minh City, Istanbul and Budapest, Santiago, Chile, and Taipei.
Online EMBA admissions, like on-campus EMBA admissions, stress experience and professional accomplishments over test scores and academic achievement. Admissions officers will most closely consider:
They will also consider, but to a lesser degree:
Regarding standardized test scores: some schools accept only the GMAT, others will accept either the GMAT or GRE scores (the GRE is significantly easier, by the way), and quite a few are test score optional.
By the time you apply to an EMBA program, you have likely accrued many years of professional experience and many recorded accomplishments. These should render standardized test scores unnecessary—the purpose of those scores, after all, is to predict whether you can handle a graduate-level program. Your professional accomplishments should answer that question.
That’s why some programs are now test score optional or don’t consider standardized test scores at all. For example, Northwestern University‘s Kellogg School of Business requires GMAT scores only of those applicants who do not have a bachelor’s degree.
One-year EMBAs may arrive on America’s shores someday, but for now, they are found overseas only. It is challenging to cover an EMBA curriculum in one year, given that students attend on a part-time basis.
The chief benefit of earning your EMBA online is convenience. On-campus EMBAs must regularly attend in-person sessions: some attend weekly or bi-weekly weekday evening or weekend classes; some attend monthly extended weekend immersions.
In contrast, online EMBAs visit campus infrequently or not at all. They may be required to attend an in-person orientation; their program may include one or two mandatory in-person immersions, typically three to seven days in length. However, the vast majority of program content arrives online. Students can study at home, at the office, or while traveling from one business event to another.
An online EMBA may be your best—or only—choice if you:
The other benefits of earning your EMBA online are the benefits of earning an EMBA, which include:
The challenges of earning an EMBA online are, primarily, the challenges of earning an EMBA. It is not easy to work full-time AND pursue a graduate degree AND fulfill your other life responsibilities (e.g., family obligations). You will likely find some of the course content challenging; time management is a challenge for all but the most industrious and well-organized.
Additionally, you will miss out on some of the face-to-face networking opportunities that on-campus students enjoy. You probably won’t attend as many program-related extracurricular events, and you won’t have as many in-person study sessions with classmates or meetings with instructors. That said, you will be meeting with fellow students and instructors online, both in live classes and in study sessions and office hours. Most programs include in-person immersions, which afford ample opportunities for schmoozing.
Online programs also require a bit more self-motivation than in-person classes. With fewer hard deadlines to meet, it is easier to fall behind if you aren’t vigilant. However, if you are the sort of person who is interested in an EMBA, you probably are pretty vigilant about your responsibilities already. Slackers typically don’t ascend the corporate ladder, nor do they look for challenging opportunities to improve their resumes. Which is to say, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already got this covered.
Prepare yourself for the challenges of earning an EMBA by making a plan beforehand. How many hours a week will you need to devote to the degree program? How many hours to work? Make a schedule and stick to it: you will be on a pretty rigorous schedule for however long it takes you to complete your EMBA (typically two years).
Make a list of your objectives in completing the EMBA. What do you hope to accomplish? Check in regularly to see how you’re progressing toward your goals. Look for opportunities to advance your objectives. Do you need more face-to-face time with your instructors? Schedule a meeting. Same with your classmates—don’t be afraid to reach out. Most programs offer career support—including resume and interview coaching, job boards, and recruiting events—for those who need it. Most EMBAs don’t, but the services are available to those who do.
The number of nationally recognized universities offering online EMBAs is still relatively small, but it is growing. As online education continues its explosive growth, more academic institutions will doubtless join the fray.
We’ve listed below MBA programs that US News & World Report ranks high and that offer online Executive MBA degrees. All have earned accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB):
Only a fool would tell you that an EMBA from Wharton and an EMBA from School No One’s Ever Heard Of have the same value. Of course it matters where you get your EMBA.
That said, how much it matters depends on your objectives. If your goal is to earn a promotion at work, and if your employer tells you you’ll get it if you earn an EMBA from your local university, then your local university is a great place to get your EMBA. If you plan to enter the job market after completing the degree, attending a prestigious program will undoubtedly help your cause.
No matter where you end up, earning your EMBA online is an option worth considering. It removes geographical barriers to your school choice and certainly adds convenience—who enjoys looking for a parking space on-campus after a long day of work? Watch the online space for more top-ranked schools to join the online EMBA market in the years to come.