Business Administration

Executive MBA vs. Part-Time MBA: Do the Differences Actually Matter?

Executive MBA vs. Part-Time MBA: Do the Differences Actually Matter?
If you're on the fence about applying to business school, one of these two degree programs could be the key to advancing your career and moving up the corporate ladder. Image from Pexels
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone August 30, 2021

If you're juggling a fast-paced career with a busy non-work life, a full-time MBA program may simply not be in the cards for you. But there are two part-time options—with significant differences—that can make business school a real possibility.

MBA Programs You Should Consider

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For prospective business school students, the part-time executive MBA (EMBA) and part-time MBA offer online courses of study that are just as rigorous and challenging as those found in traditional, full-time MBA programs. While both offer students a flexibility that allows for work and other life obligations, each program is geared for a distinct pool of MBA candidates (more on that below). While as of late the admissions process has become fiercer for full-time students—the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an uptick in applications across the board—Fortune highlighted that competition for spots in part-time and EMBA programs remained steady in 2020, since online programs are not constrained by the bricks-and-mortar space limitations of in-person programs.

Notably, the pandemic also sparked a significant increase in female applicants to MBA programs. Women exceeded male applicants by a double-digit margin for virtual, online, and EMBA programs.

Rahul Choudaha, director of research communications and industry insights at the Graduate Management Admission Council, explained the reason behind this phenomenon: “We know from the literature and prior research that flexibility is very highly valued by many female candidates given the major challenges of juggling their personal life and professional life in their late twenties to early thirties.”

If you’re on the fence about applying to business school, one of these two degree programs could be the key to advancing your career and moving up the corporate ladder. In this guide, we’ll answer the following questions (and more):

  • What are the differences between an executive MBA and part-time MBA (and do they matter)?
  • What is an executive MBA?
  • What is a part-time MBA?
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What are the differences between an executive MBA and part-time MBA (and do they matter)?

The biggest difference between a part-time, traditional MBA and an executive MBA is work experience. Prospective EMBA students have an average of 14 years in their field on their resumes. As a result, EMBA coursework is geared to students who have a significant amount of expertise in the field and have developed a keen business acumen. These are professionals seeking to earn their degrees to advance from their current roles to leadership positions.

The part-time MBA cohort, on the other hand, tends to have less work experience (and earned their undergraduate degrees only a few years earlier) and take the same foundational graduate-level business courses as full-time MBA students.

Executive MBA vs. part-time MBA (vs. traditional MBA)

When you’re comparing an executive MBA with traditional full- or part-time MBA, it’s helpful to take a moment to examine your career and think about what you hope to gain from the program that supports your career goals.

An executive MBA:

  • Offers electives, but may not require a concentration
  • Recruits a small, tightly-knit cohort with ample networking opportunities
  • Requires an average of two years to complete
  • Requires in-depth group work and in-person residencies
  • Typically does not allow students to skip a semester
  • Schedules classes on evenings, Fridays, and/or weekends

As we noted above, the executive MBA curriculum takes into account that its students have many years of work experience. You’ll find more courses built around management and leadership, as opposed to introductory business and economic classes.

On the other hand, a part-time MBA:

  • Allows flexibility that accommodates work and life obligations
  • May costs less than an executive MBA
  • Mirrors the coursework of a traditional MBA
  • Takes an average of three years to complete
  • Typically requires a major or concentration through elective courses

No matter the program, part-time students have the ability to continue working while pursuing their degree. While an online MBA may not bring students as closely together as they would with an in-person program, schools are finding innovative ways to help students cultivate these personal connections despite the physical distance.

Is an executive MBA or part-time MBA as valued as a traditional MBA?

There’s no question that an MBA is a significant investment. With tuition ranging over $100,000 a year, you don’t want to go to all the trouble to find out that EMBAs or part-time MBAs aren’t well-regarded in the industry. So are these online MBA options worth it?

Journalist John Byrne of the Poets and Quants business education-focused website says yes. He points out that publications like US News and World Report include more and more online programs in their rankings each year.
So, with the same coursework and degree, there is no reason why a job recruiter will view part-time or executive MBA graduates any differently from candidates who completed full-time programs.

The ROI of an executive MBA and part-time MBA

Depending on the school, you’ll find quite a large range of MBA tuition costs, from $21,000 to over $100,000 a year.

Which program has the better return on investment (ROI), an executive MBA or a part-time MBA? Well, it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges in this scenario, though each program yields significant benefits for its graduates.

In terms of earnings, executive MBA graduates have a leg up over their part-time MBA compatriots. Since they typically have over a decade of professional experience and access to a larger, established professional network, EMBA graduates are qualified for more advanced and higher-paying roles. Indeed, Poets and Quants notes that EMBA programs offer their graduates a median ROI of 198% at the three-year mark. The number doubles—and eventually quadruples—as the years go on.

However, the ROI for graduates of part-time MBA programs is quite good, according to Poets and Quants’ calculations. Based on a 2016 study, traditional part-time MBA programs see just over a 200% ROI after three years. Of course, tuition for these programs is lower and these graduates draw lower salaries, as they have less work experience.

Who pursues an executive MBA or part-time MBA?

Howard University, one of the top business schools in the country, offers a profile of one of their MBA students as an example of the kind of business professional who can benefit from their program. The sports executive John Ferguson explained that Howard’s part-time EMBA aligned with his rising career, especially during the pandemic. Not only did this program permit Ferguson to earn his degree without leaving his full-time position, it gave him better insight into his daily career challenges in real-time.

Overall, both executive MBA and part-time MBA candidates:

  • Seek to advance their managerial and business skills
  • Have some or a great deal of experience in the field
  • Want to continue working at their full-time job
  • May be looking for an accelerated course of study
  • Prefer a flexible schedule

However, a traditional part-time MBA candidate is an average of 28 years old, while EMBAs are a decade older.

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“Should I Get A MBA?”

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. (source)

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. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

What is an executive MBA?

Let’s break down the two programs a bit further. What exactly is an executive MBA? Think of this program as a means to fast track your career from supervisor to vice president.

Executive MBAs candidates already have the skills to build and lead a team and likely have been doing so for several years. They don’t need an MBA to lay the groundwork for their career.

How long does it take to earn an executive MBA?

There are two paths to earn your EMBA: a two-year program or an accelerated 15 to 20-month course of study. Whichever you choose, you’ll need to complete the same level of coursework in that prescribed amount of time.

EMBA programs typically have a set schedule on evenings and weekends—and rarely allow students to postpone a semester. While the majority of courses take place online, many EMBAs also require in-person immersions or group capstone projects.

Admission requirements and prerequisites

Wharton’s EMBA program—one of the top-rated in the country—has strict eligibility requirements for admission. Students are required to:

  • Have at least eight years of business experience
  • Complete four essay questions
  • Obtain two professional letters of recommendation
  • Interview with the campus recruiting team
  • Submit GMAT, GRE, or Executive Assessment (EA) scores

Wharton also requires that the student’s current employer formally acknowledges their admission, especially if the company is providing financial assistance, as some do.

Curriculum

The executive MBA curriculum moves at a rapid clip. The program has to cover a lot of ground in 15 to 24 weeks. For instance, Howard University’s School of Business offers:

  • Accounting for Executives
  • Applied Economics for Executives
  • Creating Value through the Supply Chain
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Business
  • Organizational Behavior and Leadership

The majority of EMBA programs culminate in an immersive experience, study abroad program, or capstone project to help students build a trusted network to rely on post-graduation.

Specialization

While some programs prefer students to remain on the same track throughout the accelerated program, others encourage one of multiple specializations.

Take a look at the NYU EMBA program, for example. Students can choose up to three specializations, each of which requires nine related credits for completion. A few of these include:

  • Brand Management
  • Corporate Finance
  • Global Business
  • Management of Technology and Operations
  • Supply Chain

Executive MBA career paths

The Economist notes that the average graduate from an EMBA program sees a 51% raise in their salary after earning their degree. As we’ve mentioned, students often enroll in an EMBA program when they’re on the verge of a major promotion, but need the extra training to take on new responsibilities.

Depending on their field, EMBA graduates go on to be:

  • Chief Executive Officers
  • Chief Financial Officers
  • Directors of Marketing
  • Investment Managers
  • Presidents of healthcare facilities
  • Senior Accountants

Students also can use an EMBA degree as a means to transition to a new career, especially if they’ve already established themselves in an industry with transferable skills.

Top online executive MBA programs

In addition to the well-known M7 schools—the top-rated B-schools in the US—finding the best online EMBA program for you is a unique process. Your ideal program should balance tuition costs, the online student experience, and specialization or immersion options that you need to advance your career.

Some top EMBA online programs include:

  • Brown University
  • Duke University
  • Howard University
  • James Madison University
  • Rochester Institute of Technology

What is a part-time MBA?

A part-time MBA caters to early and mid-career professionals looking to shift careers, gain expertise in a different segment of their industry, or qualify for a promotion at their current company.

Unlike an executive MBA, the MBA application process is less likely to require a set number of years in the field.

How long does it take to earn a part-time MBA?

One of the benefits of a part-time MBA is its forgiving timeline. Students can take three years or more to complete the degree, allowing them to balance their full-time job and busy family life with their studies.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

While the acceptance rate for traditional, full-time MBA programs is quite low—an impressive (or daunting) 20%—part-time programs are more accommodating. As of 2017, acceptance to part-time MBA programs ran as high as 72.6%.

Admission requirements are similar to the EMBA, students are expected to have fewer years of work experience under their belts. Most schools require:

  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college
  • GMAT, GRE, or EA scores (which can be waived for qualifying students)
  • TOEFL scores

The University of Chicago looks for students with:

  • Academic preparedness (test scores, undergraduate degree, etc.)
  • Career trajectory skills
  • Leadership, community, and team-building skills

Curriculum

Both full-time and part-time MBA programs tend to offer students a bit more flexibility when it comes to building a course of study tailored to one’s career objectives. Large universities often open up elective options outside of their school of business to customize their program further. Common core courses include:

  • Accounting
  • Business ethics
  • Data analysis
  • IT management
  • Management techniques
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Organizational behavior

Specialization

While you’ll find a wide range of specialization options with an MBA—and may even be required to choose a concentration—part-time students may not always have as long a list to choose from due to time constraints and course availability.

However, many programs, such as the one at Rutgers University, offer concentrations like:

  • Analytics and Information Management
  • Global Business
  • Marketing Research Insights and Analytics
  • Strategy and Leadership
  • Supply Chain Management

You may also find entire degrees catered to industries such as healthcare, the arts, and information technology.

Part-time MBA career options

Perhaps most importantly, part-time MBA students graduate with the same degree as their full-time peers. Career options range from leadership roles, transitioning to a new field, or launching a company from the ground up.

The only difference, as we mentioned earlier, is the possibility of less camaraderie in a part-time program. Without as much on-campus time with the same cohort of students, it can be trickier to build long-term connections, but this experience varies from school to school. Part-time programs, of course, still provide access to the same career services and post-graduation internship options.

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Top part-time online MBA programs

Much like the best online EMBA programs, part-time MBA options should offer:

  • Access to career and IT services
  • Direct links to professors and the student community
  • Flexible schedules with a clear road map to graduation
  • Synchronous and asynchronous options

Some of the top part-time online MBA programs include:

  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • New York University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

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.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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MBA Programs You Should Consider

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