Business Administration

Executive MBA vs. MBA: Which Business Degree Is Right for You?

Executive MBA vs. MBA: Which Business Degree Is Right for You?
MBA and EMBA programs can look remarkably similar at first glance. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 31, 2023

An EMBA is more than a part-time MBA. It requires significant work experience to handle its advanced coursework. Both programs lead to an MBA degree; both are valuable to the right student.

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You've thought carefully about whether to get an MBA degree and you've decided that it's the best way to take your career to the next level. Choosing a business school is the next step, right?

Not necessarily.

First, you need to think about what kind of Master of Business Administration program will help you reach your professional goals. There are traditional MBAs, for one, which can be full-time or part-time, on-campus or online. These programs typically offer students the opportunity to specialize by discipline or industry. Then there are executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) programs. EMBA programs are similar to MBA programs, but with key differences.

MBA and EMBA programs can look remarkably similar at first glance. They're both advanced business degrees designed to help professionals get promoted, boost their earning potential, and move past career plateaus. That's where the similarities end, however. These programs differ in prerequisites, curriculum, format, program length, costs, and benefits.

The best executive MBA programs aren't just accelerated part-time MBA programs, though they're typically chosen by students who want to or need to continue working while earning a degree. The EMBA is actually a specialized degree designed for seasoned business leaders aiming for top executive positions. Traditional MBAs, in contrast, are more frequently full-time programs designed for students with a few years of post-undergraduate professional experience (and some programs even admit MBA candidates with no professional experience).

Choosing between these two paths can be tough, but we can help. It's executive MBA vs. MBA in this article exploring how these two degrees stack up. In it, we cover:

  • What is an executive MBA?
  • Are the prerequisites the same for EMBA and MBA programs?
  • Do students in EMBA programs study the same material as MBA students?
  • Are executive MBA programs shorter than traditional MBA programs?
  • Which costs more: an EMBA or an MBA?
  • Do EMBA graduates earn as much as MBA graduates?
  • Is earning an executive MBA easier than earning a traditional MBA?
  • What should I keep in mind when choosing between these degrees?

What is an executive MBA?

The EMBA is not your typical MBA. While traditional Master of Business Administration programs attract early career professionals and people who are looking to switch careers, executive MBA programs are designed for mid- to high-level working professionals with significant supervisory experience—often about 10 years' worth. Students in EMBA programs tend to be driven, focused, and on the fast track to the c-suite.

Lockstep cohort workgroups are the norm in these fast-paced, intensive part-time, year-round programs. Unlike traditional MBA programs, EMBA programs don't allow students to take a semester off. Earning an EMBA degree typically requires substantial group work; cohorts collaborate on projects together until graduation, in class and during weeks-long immersion experiences or residencies.

Are the prerequisites the same for EMBA and MBA programs?

There's a reason why the average age of executive MBA students is 38 years old while the average age of students in traditional MBA programs is just 28. One of the biggest differences between traditional MBAs and executive MBAs can be found in the admissions requirements for these programs.

While some MBA programs require applicants to have significant work experience, others admit students without any professional experience at all. To apply for those programs, prospective students typically need to submit GMAT or GRE scores, undergraduate transcripts that show they completed a relevant bachelor's degree program, and other materials that demonstrate academic ability.

EMBA programs, on the other hand, are typically designed for seasoned professionals with 10+ years of business and management experience. Many programs don't require EMBA candidates to submit standardized test scores. Instead, they require them to include letters of recommendation from past employers and a letter of support from their current employer. Applicants also submit their resumes to show evidence of general management experience and leadership skills, and that they are ready to tackle the highly focused advanced business curriculum that is the hallmark of the executive MBA.

Do students in EMBA programs study the same material as MBA students?

The coursework in MBA and EMBA programs at most colleges and universities overlaps significantly. At Howard University, for instance, traditional students follow this MBA curriculum:

  • 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
  • Strategic Management Capstone

Students in the school's executive MBA program work their way through a list of related courses:

  • 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
  • Organization Behavior and Leadership
  • Strategic Communications
  • Strategic Management Capstone

Even when the core curricula are similar, however, these programs can be very different. In general, there are fewer foundational courses in executive MBA programs because schools assume students have already mastered management fundamentals. Many colleges and universities offer MBA concentrations like management, operations, strategy, and entrepreneurship. Most executive MBA programs, in contrast, don't give students the option of selecting a specialization or even choosing electives. That's because EMBA students have already developed specializations over their careers. Most hope to continue along their career path to a more advanced position. EMBA programs are also almost always more rigorous and faster-paced than traditional MBA programs.

Are executive MBA programs shorter than traditional MBA programs?

Executive MBA programs might only meet in the evenings and on weekends, but they don't typically take any longer than traditional full-time MBA programs. It's not unusual for both executive MBA and traditional MBA programs to take two to three years to complete. There are accelerated EMBA and MBA programs as well. One-year MBA programs are certainly more common than accelerated executive MBA programs, but it's possible to earn an EMBA in as little as 19 months.

The more important question may be whether program length really matters. When it comes to traditional MBAs, the answer is probably no. There are 12-month MBA programs at top schools like Duke University and New York University. But if you're looking at executive MBA programs, chances are that the faster a program is, the less prestigious it will be. EMBA programs are already highly intensive in a two-year format. Top universities don't want to dilute the quality of those programs by attempting to condense them further.

Which costs more: an EMBA or an MBA?

Tuition costs vary widely between programs for both MBAs and executive MBAs. A full-time traditional MBA program can cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than $200,000 at a top business school. You'll see the same variability in EMBA programs. The average cost of an EMBA falls somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000, but an executive MBA degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, or Columbia University will cost around $200,000.

There was a time when aspiring executive MBA program students could be reasonably sure their employers would foot the bill for this degree, but the days when employers paid most, if not all, tuition costs for these programs are over. In 2022, a full 56 percent of EMBA students were entirely self-funded while only 16 percent received full scholarships.

But while an EMBA can cost more than an MBA on paper, keep in mind that you'll still be working full-time or close to it while earning an executive MBA, so you may require much smaller student loans. You may also make more after graduating with an EMBA, making it easier to pay off those loans. Enrolling in a traditional MBA can mean taking an unpaid sabbatical or dramatically cutting back on the work you can do—and taking on a lot more debt. The total cost of an MBA may be higher than that of an executive MBA if you factor in things like student loan interest and loss of income.

Do EMBA graduates earn as much as MBA graduates?

Executive MBA graduates usually earn more than graduates of traditional MBA programs. According to one Executive MBA Council exit survey, EMBAs are a solid investment. Most executive MBA graduates received a 14.7 percent increase in compensation, and 36 percent earned a promotion while they were in school. They earned, on average, $166,549 annually before their programs and $190,989 (in salary plus bonuses) after graduation. As a result, executive MBA graduates who have to fund their own degrees tend to pay them off within two years.

Salaries of traditional MBA graduates, on the other hand, vary widely. Data collected for the 2021 National Association of Colleges and Employers salary survey suggested that newly minted MBAs earn about $75,000.

Is earning an executive MBA easier than earning a traditional MBA?

Some people assume that executive MBA programs are easier or less expensive than MBA programs because they're shorter—20 months, on average, versus two years. The reality is, however, that they're shorter because they're concentrated, and they often cost more. Remember, there are typically no introductory courses in EMBA programs. Students learn more in these programs in less time, which means earning an EMBA represents a different kind of commitment that's not right for everyone.

EMBA programs are technically part-time in nature, but they represent a full-time commitment. Most students in executive MBA programs continue to work full time, and completing classwork and projects can make it difficult to meet personal and family obligations. If you're leaning toward the EMBA, make sure you're ready to devote your life to learning for the length of the program.

What should I keep in mind when choosing between these degrees?

Don't overlook traditional MBA programs just because you meet the stricter application criteria for executive MBA programs. EMBA programs tend to accept fewer students and are more competitive. In 2019, the Executive MBA Council reported that the number of applications to executive MBA programs was 31.6 percent higher than in previous years. You might have an easier time finding a spot in a traditional MBA program—particularly if you're applying to top business schools.

On the other hand, 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. While traditional MBA students also make valuable connections, an MBA class may be made up of recent b-school graduates and students with just a few years of professional experience.

Regardless of which degree pathway you choose, however, your career prospects will be pretty good. EMBA graduates might earn more right after graduation, but that's because they typically have many more years of work experience. It doesn't mean their long-term prospects are necessarily more robust. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs for executives will grow over the next 10 years, and both a traditional MBA and an executive MBA can boost your chances of becoming CEO someday.

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