Business Administration

Executive MBA Programs for Working Professionals

Executive MBA Programs for Working Professionals
EMBA programs are for mid-career professionals who've already racked up some success but want to go farther, faster. In some ways, they're like MBA programs on steroids. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 15, 2020

If you're a working professional with management experience and dreams of advancement, an Executive MBA might just be your ticket to a dream job.

MBA/Business and Executive MBA Programs You Should Consider

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Business administration is an umbrella term encompassing anything and everything required to manage a company’s resources. Many disciplines (e.g., finance and operations management) and professional roles fall under this umbrella. One degree can help you transition into high-level managerial roles across all of them.

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is the degree for aspiring business leaders. It’s designed to prepare professionals to run companies efficiently and profitably. MBA programs teach skills across business disciplines; graduates go on to work in areas as diverse as information systems management and marketing.

Employers love MBAs because they know graduates of Master of Business Administration programs can think critically about business challenges and solve complex problems. Plus, they tend to know how to make money for their companies.

Succeeding in business takes hard work, creativity, determination, and luck. However, it’s also helpful to have the right MBA. Which one is for you? There are traditional two-year, full-time Master of Business Administration programs, professional MBAs, industry-focused MBAs, and the Executive MBA (EMBA)—any of which might be a good fit, depending on where you are in your career.

EMBA programs are for mid-career professionals who’ve already racked up some success but want to go farther, faster. In some ways, they’re like MBA programs on steroids. They’re not for everyone, however. Keep reading to find out whether this degree is for you.

In this article about earning an Executive MBA for working professionals, we cover:

  • What is an Executive MBA?
  • Do working professionals need an MBA?
  • Should I get an Executive MBA?
  • Executive MBA program requirements
  • How to choose an Executive MBA program
  • On-campus Executive MBA or online Executive MBA?
  • How long does it take to earn an Executive MBA?
  • How much does an Executive MBA cost?
  • Is an Executive MBA worth it?

What is an Executive MBA?

The very first Executive MBA program was created by the University of Chicago‘s Booth School of Business in 1943. It was designed to give employers a way to prepare their best and brightest managers to move into c-suite roles.

Today’s EMBA programs tend to target ambitious employees rather than their bosses, but the focus hasn’t changed. Students in Executive MBA degree programs are seasoned professionals looking to enhance their skill sets and knowledge so they can transition into senior leadership positions.

Traditionally, EMBA programs were only offered on-campus, but today, 55 percent of business schools with Executive MBA programs offer online and hybrid options.

How does an EMBA differ from a traditional MBA?

MBA and EMBA programs have a lot in common. Employers respect them both, for one. Their core coursework covers much of the same material. And MBA and Executive MBA graduates typically out-earn their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees.

There are key differences between the MBA and EMBA, however, when it comes to student demographics, curriculum, program length, and cost.

Student body [EMBA vs. MBA]

Traditional full-time and part-time MBA programs tend to attract early career professionals (and sometimes students looking to switch careers). Students in Executive MBA programs tend to be mid- to high-level managers with significant supervisory experience. The average EMBA student has 10 to 14 years of experience; the average age of Executive MBA students is 38 years old. In contrast, the average age of traditional MBA students is 28.

Curriculum [EMBA vs. MBA]

The classes in MBA and EMBA programs often seem very similar, but course names can give you a clue as to how they differ. You’ll see that coursework in MBA programs usually spends more time on business fundamentals, whereas Executive MBA coursework focuses more on strategy and managerial practices.

At Howard University (home to one of the top HBCU MBA programs and one of the top EMBAs in DC) the traditional MBA program includes the following courses:

  • Data Analytics
  • E-commerce in Supply Chain Management
  • Economics for Global Leaders
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Financial Accounting
  • Financial Management
  • Financial Modeling
  • Global Management Consulting
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Marketing Management
  • Organizational Management
  • Principles of Information Systems
  • Productions and Operations Research
  • Project Management
  • Statistics and Business Analytics

Compare that list to the required courses in Howard University’s online Executive MBA program:

  • Accounting for Executives
  • Applied Economics for Executives
  • Creating Value Through Supply Chain
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Financial Management
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Business
  • Management Consulting
  • Management Statistics and Data Analytics
  • Managing Technology and Innovation
  • Managing the Global Business Environment
  • Marketing Strategy
  • Organizational Behavior and Leadership
  • Strategic Communications
  • Strategic Management Capstone

Cost [EMBA vs. MBA]

Because tuition for both MBAs and Executive MBAs varies so widely, it’s not particularly useful to compare the cost of an EMBA with the cost of an MBA. However, it is fair to say that EMBA programs are usually more expensive. Traditional MBA programs can cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than $200,000 at elite business schools. The most affordable MBAs cost less than $10,000.

EMBA tuition is similarly varied. Most programs cost somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000, but an Executive MBA from an elite business school like the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, or Columbia University will cost around $200,000. On the other hand, some programs cost less than $40,000.

Flexibility [EMBA vs. MBA]

EMBA programs appear more flexible at first glance because classes are typically held on evenings and weekends. International residencies—usually brief—are held during summer or mid-year breaks.

While Executive MBA programs are technically part-time in nature, they usually require students to make a more significant commitment. Students in Executive MBA programs typically work full-time and then do coursework in their off-hours—and that coursework must be completed in lockstep with a cohort. Meeting personal and family obligations while pursuing an EMBA can be challenging. Part-time MBA programs that are delivered online are often more flexible than Executive MBA programs.

Program length [EMBA vs. MBA]

The Executive MBA isn’t just an accelerated part-time MBA program. EMBA cohorts may only meet for classes in the evenings and on weekends, but they often do more work than their peers in traditional MBA programs in the same two-year period. There are also accelerated Executive MBA programs that take about 17 months to complete. Keep in mind that program length matters when you’re looking at EMBAs. The fastest Executive MBA programs will either be the most challenging because so much material is crammed into fewer months of study or the least challenging because some material simply isn’t covered.

Executive MBA vs. Professional MBA

Professional and Executive MBA programs are similar in that they’re both designed for busy business professionals. The main difference between them is that most Professional MBA (PMBA) programs are part-time graduate business degree pathways intended for students without significant managerial experience. That said, naming conventions vary by institution, so you may encounter colleges and universities with Professional MBA programs that are indistinguishable from EMBAs.

Is an EMBA as good as a traditional MBA?

Answering this question is challenging because these programs have different objectives and, therefore, different outcomes. It’s easy to generalize that EMBA holders earn more than MBA holders—especially graduates of top programs, who routinely earn more than $200,000—making it look like the former degree is not just as good as the latter degree, but better.

Look more closely, and it’s clear that EMBA holders earn more because they typically have more experience than their peers with MBAs. If you only have a few years of experience in business roles, a traditional MBA will be the better, more practical choice. If you’re a senior manager, vice president, or director, you’ll get more out of an EMBA program than an MBA.

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Do working professionals need an MBA?

That depends on how you define ‘need.’ Earning an MBA can have a huge positive impact on your career in business, but it is possible to advance without one. You might advance more slowly, but you’ll move forward bit by bit. You’ll probably encounter more frustrating career plateaus without a graduate degree, but if you’re driven, you’ll be able to overcome them. And chances are you’ll encounter some employers who won’t consider you for certain positions due to your lack of MBA. The point is that if you don’t want to have to fight tooth and nail for every raise and promotion, an MBA can be a wonderful thing.

Working professionals with a bachelor’s degree

Earning a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) is an excellent way to launch a career. You’ll learn to identify business opportunities, maximize profit in these programs, and start building your professional network. After graduation, you’ll be able to step into all kinds of entry-level business administration roles.

What jobs are available?

BBAs typically work at for-profit corporations and startups but can also be found on the payroll of nonprofits, arts organizations, government agencies, service organizations, and schools. Entities that have money coming in and going out can benefit from employees with business degrees.

How far can you go?

You can rise through the ranks to become a manager with a business bachelor’s degree, but your ascension will be slower because you’ll be competing for positions against colleagues with graduate degrees. Your career may plateau in a comfortable place with good pay and benefits, but that can be frustrating if you aspire to higher positions.

What opportunities does an MBA create?

You’ll be eligible to step into more roles and into higher-level management positions once you have an MBA. You’ll also earn more than your colleagues with business bachelor’s degrees. The average salary associated with a BBA is $66,000. The average salary associated with MBAs is $88,000. As mentioned above, EMBA graduates earn a lot more.

Working professionals with a graduate degree

There are graduate degree programs for business professionals that teach management fundamentals but are shorter and/or less intense than MBA and Executive MBA programs. Master’s in management programs cover some of the same ground as MBA programs, but they’re usually geared toward recent college grads or professionals with just a few years of experience.

What jobs are available?

Where master’s in management grads end up depends on whether they had business experience before enrolling in the program or experience in other fields. Students who’ve worked in entry-level business administration roles may be able to leverage a master’s in management when applying for leadership positions. On the other hand, students who enroll in a management master’s program to switch careers may be limited to entry-level positions for some time after earning this degree.

How far can you go?

The answer has more to do with experience than with the degree on your resume. A management-focused master’s program will give you a sound understanding of business fundamentals but won’t look as impressive to hiring managers unless you also have a history of quantifiable professional wins.

What opportunities does an MBA create?

MBA grads are more likely to be hired for senior-level positions than management master’s degree-holders. Again, this may have more to do with experience than employer perception of the value of an MBA. What’s almost certain is that you’ll earn more money with an MBA than an MS in Business Management. Average salaries for management master’s degree holders are about $10,000 less than those of MBA holders.

What types of working professionals get an EMBA?

Students in Executive MBA programs are typically looking to advance in the careers they’ve already established. They want to advance and grow their earning power more quickly. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that every student pursuing an EMBA dreams of becoming CEO. There are Executive MBA programs geared toward professionals in non-business fields who want to become more effective managers.

Executive MBA programs for physicians

EMBA programs designed for doctors cover the same kinds of management strategies and theories as generalist programs but devote more coursework to business administration in healthcare.

Executive MBA programs for entrepreneurship

Experienced entrepreneurs can get a lot out of an entrepreneurship-focused EMBA program. They can explore business ideas and opportunities with peers in a low-risk setting before investing capital or otherwise taking on risk.

Executive MBA leadership programs

Leadership EMBA programs are laser-focused on managerial concepts related to organizational supervision and direction. Graduates of these programs often emerge more confident in their ability to help others achieve success.

Part-time MBA/JD programs

Business and law are inexorably intertwined, which means there’s an ongoing need for business professionals who understand corporate law and attorneys who understand how business gets done.

Should I get an Executive MBA?

That depends on where you are in your career right now and where you want to be in five or ten years.

Assess your career goals

If your goal is to climb to the very top of the leadership ladder, earning an EMBA is one way to do that. That assumes that you’re already a few rungs up. Your Executive MBA will boost your earning potential and is likely to lead to promotions (maybe even before you graduate). This degree can also help you avoid frustrating career plateaus.

Calculate your return on investment

Calculating the ROI of degrees is challenging because you can’t simply compare the direct financial investment (tuition) against returns (future salary). There are indirect costs that must be factored into your calculations, and there’s no way to determine conclusively how much you’ll earn with an EMBA. The best thing you can do is consider the ROI of this degree over the long term.

Weigh all the factors

You may have to make sacrifices in your personal life to make it to graduation. Only you can decide whether giving up hobbies, vacations, and other personal pursuits to complete your EMBA coursework is worth it. Consider, though, that most Executive MBA programs last about two years, so any hardship will be temporary.

Executive MBA program requirements

Most Executive MBA programs have more rigorous admissions standards than traditional MBA programs. This is primarily because they require a greater amount and higher level of professional experience.

Do Executive MBA programs require GMAT scores?

Many EMBA programs ask applicants to provide GMAT or GRE scores. There are some, however, that eschew standardized test scores in favor of letters of recommendation from past employers and/or letters of support from a current employer. Some programs accept Executive Assessment (EA) results instead of GMAT or GRE scores when applicants have sufficient work experience.

Executive MBA without GMAT programs

Some top EMBA programs don’t require applicants to submit GMAT scores, though they will still accept them and use them when weighing the strength of applications. These include:

What courses typically make up an EMBA curriculum?

Coursework in Executive MBA classes covers real-world management challenges and solutions. Many programs have no elective classes. Many EMBA curricula consist entirely of core courses focused on topics related to:

  • 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

Do students complete a final project, thesis, or practicum?

In almost all Executive MBA programs, students take at least one experiential learning course or complete one or more weekend- or week-long immersion experiences that culminate in a capstone project. These are sometimes solo projects but often involve an entire cohort working together in partnership with local firms.

Top Online Executive MBA programs

Some top online Executive MBA programs can be found at the following schools:

How to choose an Executive MBA program

The very best EMBA programs are at the top business schools, but that doesn’t mean the best Executive MBA program for you will be at an M7 university. Choosing an EMBA program will mean looking at factors like program focus, location, cost, and duration.

How do Executive MBA programs vary?

EMBA programs are as variable as MBA programs. They are delivered on campuses, online, and in blended formats. Some involve more collaborative work between students in each cohort, while others allow students to work independently. There are Executive MBA programs that enable students to choose concentrations or specializations and programs focused on general management. Accelerated Executive MBA degree programs at some colleges and universities can be completed in as little as 18 months, while other programs take three years to complete.

Does prestige or school rank matter?

Reputation matters in the MBA world. The relative prestige of your alma mater will have a direct impact on your future marketability. Graduate from a top-tier university and more doors will be open to you. This isn’t because you’ll necessarily get a measurably better education, but because the network you build while in school will be more robust.

What are the signs of a good EMBA program?

The best Executive MBA programs tend to have:

  • Multiple international immersion opportunities
  • Seminars, webinars, and other events for alumni
  • Student-led organizations focused on management
  • Tight-knit cohort workgroups that collaborate often
  • Very large and very active business-focused alumni groups

On-campus Executive MBA or online Executive MBA?

That depends on what you’re looking for. There are still relatively few 100 percent online EMBA programs (especially at top business schools), but if you need maximum flexibility, an online program at a less prestigious college or university might be the best choice. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons carefully.

Pros and cons of on-campus Executive MBA

Pro: On-campus EMBA programs offer students more opportunities to network with peers and build valuable business relationships. Students have greater access to faculty and mentors.

Con: Choosing an on-campus program means you’re limited to business schools in your immediate area or will need to relocate. You will also need to commute to campus for classes and other events.

Pros and cons of online Executive MBA

Pro: Most online Executive MBA programs are virtually identical to on-campus programs regarding delivery format, curriculum, international immersion experience requirements, and networking opportunities.

Con: There aren’t as many online EMBA programs at high-profile business schools, and a degree from a prestigious program will take you farther than one from a less-venerated school of business.

How long does it take to earn an Executive MBA?

Most Executive MBA degree programs take about two years to complete, just like a full-time MBA. Top-tier accelerated EMBA programs take 20 months, and the fastest programs last about 15 months.

Shortest Executive MBA programs

You can earn an EMBA at these schools in about 17 months:

One-year Executive MBA programs

Don’t spend too much time looking for one-year Executive MBA programs unless you’re willing to go to school in Europe or Asia. If there are reasons you absolutely must earn a graduate-level business administration degree in a single year, an accelerated MBA program is probably the way to go.

How much does an Executive MBA cost?

As noted above, you’ll pay about $80,000 for an EMBA from most business schools, but Executive MBAs from the best business schools can cost $150,000 or more.

Cheapest online Executive MBA programs

It’s possible to earn an EMBA for less than $30,000. Southeastern Louisiana University‘s Executive MBA program costs just $20,676, and that figure is all-inclusive. Everything from tuition and books, workshops and luncheon lectures, graduation fees, and even parking fees and snacks is included. You can find similarly budget-friendly online EMBA programs at:

Affordable online Executive MBA programs

There are somewhat higher-priced but still affordable online Executive MBA programs at these colleges and universities:

Scholarship and grant opportunities

EMBA students are typically eligible for the same public and private scholarships and grants as MBA candidates. Some business schools have scholarship money set aside just for Executive MBA students. Eligibility is usually based on professional achievement, ethnicity, gender, and geographic location. Visiting your school’s financial aid office is always a good idea because it will be able to help you get the funds you need to pursue this degree.

Will your employer pay for your EMBA?

Probably not. While it was once common for companies to pay for promising middle managers to get their EMBAs, 45 percent of Executive MBA candidates fund their degrees. About 35 percent receive some employer sponsorship. Very few receive full sponsorship.

Is an Executive MBA worth it?

The answer is an unequivocal yes, provided you’re an experienced business professional with executive-level dreams and the drive necessary to simultaneously work and pursue a degree. Top executives face very stiff competition for jobs, and earning an EMBA may be what finally pushes you over the c-suite threshold.

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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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