MBA vs. Professional MBA vs. Executive MBA Programs

At some point during the research process, most aspiring business school students wonder about the differences between traditional, professional, and executive MBA programs. With full-time or part-time and on-campus or online programs, along with the three above options, it is easy to get confused about which option is best. So what do all these terms mean and why do so many different kinds of programs exist?

The wide variety of MBA programs now available results from how business schools have applied marketing strategies to boost enrollment. First, the schools segmented the market for each of these degrees, dividing potential students into groups that shared key demographic and lifestyle characteristics. Once the schools identified the differing needs for advanced management training within these groups, they designed differentiated educational products customized to meet those needs.

This process resulted in Harvard University’s debut of the MBA as the first practitioner-oriented advanced management degree in 1908, followed by the University of Chicago’s debut of the first “weekend scholar” part-time executive MBA program for seasoned managers in 1947. The process continues today as the schools adapt to these formats for online delivery.

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Traditional or Full-Time MBA Programs

The traditional, full-time MBA program involves a two-year commitment with classes and most work scheduled during daytime hours. These programs also utilize evening hours for networking club events, examinations, recruiting information sessions, and interviews. The career counseling support, summer internships, and on-campus interviews at these schools make them well-suited for career changers. However, students cannot work full-time during these programs, and program costs can be high, especially at elite private universities.

Almost all schools offer at least one type of MBA program: the traditional MBA. This is typically a two-year program—with some accelerated one-year options available—if enrolled on-campus and full-time. The traditional MBA is designed for students wishing to advance their careers in business and obtain leadership positions in their respective industries. Traditional MBA programs provide graduates with a master’s degree in business administration and typically can be specialized according to topics in business, such as marketing, entrepreneurship strategy, and organizational behavior, as well as industry topics, such as healthcare, finance, and information technology.

Professional or Part-Time MBA Programs

Part-time programs, attended by most MBA degree candidates include night school and weekend programs that have been rebranded with newer designations, such as the “professional MBA” and “fully-employed MBA.”

These flexible (and often more affordable) programs are typically also offered in online versions and allow students to continue working full-time while taking a reduced course load. While these programs generally have less competitive admissions than their full-time counterparts, the degree is the same. That said, the program is longer—between three and five years—and typically does not offer financial aid. They also tend to offer reduced networking opportunities and less career support, with some exceptions, such as Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online program.

Executive MBA Programs

A smaller proportion of seasoned business leaders attend executive MBA (EMBA) programs, which are different from other part-time and full-time programs.

According to the Executive MBA Council, EMBA programs are accelerated programs with fewer class hours that allow business leaders with more advanced business experience to receive a postgraduate degree in two years or less while they continue working full-time. Condensed course scheduling includes all-day classes once a week, three full days over a long weekend every three weeks, or one week a month.

EMBA students complete classes with the same group of students, known as a cohort, which can become a valuable lifelong network. EMBA programs also provide special services to address the needs of busy business leaders such as personal career coaching, and certain concierge services (e.g., travel arrangements, textbook purchases, meals during classes). In recent years, the trend has been to develop EMBA programs taught in different nations, often through alliances between business schools.

Comparison Table: Traditional, Professional, and Executive MBA Programs

Key differences between full-time, part-time, and executive MBA programs appear summarized in the table below. For more information about situations where part-time MBA programs make the most sense, see the BSchools guide, “Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It?

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.