What is an Executive MBA Program (EMBA)?

An executive master’s in business administration, or EMBA, is a unique type of MBA program that is typically completed part-time while students continue to work full-time. It offers unique advantages that differentiate them from traditional part-time MBAs.

In the United States, part-time programs remain the most popular delivery configuration for MBA degrees, enrolling about 47 percent of students. Besides executive MBA programs, these include evening and weekend programs geared towards working professionals, sometimes called professional MBA (PMBA) or fully-employed MBA (FEMBA) programs. In the past two years, the University of Iowa shut down its full-time residential MBA program. Instead, it merged its part-time and online MBA programs, resulting in an explosion of enrollment from 40 to 400 students in the span of a few semesters.

At most business schools, part-time students—including EMBA students—earn the same MBA degree as the full-time students and benefit from the same alumni network. In addition, many reports suggest that most recruiters and hiring managers do not care if one attended a full-time or part-time program but underscore that part-time programs are best for students with previous work experience.

For example, the former admissions dean and director at Cornell and the University of Michigan, Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, says, “Part-time programs are perfect for the 24-to 35-year-old career enhancer but rarely serve the career changer.” However, this time commitment is one of the only similarities between executive MBAs and part-time MBAs.

EMBA programs differ from other MBA options in three main ways, according to Patty Keegan, an associate dean at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business:

  1. EMBA students are generally more experienced and at a point in their careers when they are preparing to take on executive management responsibilities.
  2. The curriculum typically focuses on general management and is a planned, fixed curriculum, where the school determines the sequence of courses and the faculty.
  3. Students progress through the curriculum in lockstep as a cohort and graduate as a group.

Outside of these three main factors, there are other smaller differentiators, which are covered below.

EMBA: A Degree For More Experienced Students

Executive MBA students only account for about 13 percent of all MBA students. University business schools design executive MBA programs for a smaller group of seasoned executives aspiring towards top management roles. That was the intention behind the University of Chicago’s debut of the first executive MBA program for experienced managers in 1943. More than 70 years later, that purpose remains the same today at all executive MBA programs.

Consistent with that mission, EMBA programs require a lot more work experience than other MBA programs. Although most EMBA programs require at least four years of experience, many programs report an average of seven years of experience, with many students having ten to fifteen years.

Fortune Education reported in 2021 that the average EMBA applicant is 38 years old and has three to five years of relevant professional experience. At some schools like the University of Chicago, the average may run as high as 13 years. In comparison, Harvard Business School reports an average post-college experience of five years—and some schools do not have a minimum.

An Advanced Curriculum and Expert Faculty

According to the Executive MBA Council and the Financial Times, EMBA programs are accelerated programs with fewer class hours that allow business leaders to receive their MBA in two years or less while they continue working full-time. Most EMBA programs last 18 to 30 months, significantly less than the three to five years common in other part-time MBA programs.

The presentation of topics in the EMBA curriculum is the most advanced, high-level presentation found among any MBA degree program, whether full-time or part-time. Business schools usually replace introductory topics in core courses at this level with those appropriate for top management.

“Students need to understand the basic core and framework well, not to the extent of a specialist, but to the point where you can understand and respond to others who are presenting information to you for decisions,” explained Beatrix Dart, the associate dean for executive degree programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“You need to be able to assess what is being presented to you as the decision-maker. I think that is what employers are trying to find—not only knowledge of the fundamentals, but also knowledge about how to use the fundamentals and improved judgment in decision-making.”

In contrast with flexible full-time MBA programs like Stanford’s that permit students to choose from various courses, most EMBA programs afford students little choice. Despite some notable exceptions, most EMBA programs do not offer specializations, concentrations, or electives. Nevertheless, at some schools, cohorts vote on elective class selections upon completing core courses, while some programs offer elective courses as short-term study abroad opportunities.

Regarding those who teach the curriculum, EMBA faculty tend to consist of a business school’s most capable and experienced professors across a range of disciplines. Also, because EMBA programs admit students with so much experience, classmates can provide their peers with rich teaching and learning experiences. In those cases, professors act as expert discussion moderators.

Excellent Networking Opportunities

Students complete classes in lockstep with the same group of students, known as a cohort, which can become a valuable lifelong network because many are likely future CEOs. However, unlike full-time MBA students, the students in executive MBA programs may not enjoy as much time available for networking with classmates or have access to as many potential contacts.

However, executive MBA students may experience the best networking opportunities of any program type because their classmates are already top management candidates with extensive leadership experience. They possess more capabilities and influence as potential business partners and investors than those in other programs. According to Wharton Business MBA, Vanessa Folkerts, whose team won first place for proposing an e-commerce marketplace for pharmacies in rural Kenya in a global business case competition:

“We came to Wharton looking for hard problems and how we could realign incentives in the market to change behavior, while adhering to local social and legal frameworks. This project was an opportunity to create shared value in a critical supply chain. In a nascent industry often constrained by legal barriers, I was looking for business models to make healthcare more affordable, accessible, and effective. Wharton’s faculty opened the doors to research projects in AI applications and regulation.”

Condensed Scheduling

Consistent with their accelerated pace, EMBA programs often employ various forms of condensed scheduling. Here are some examples:

  • All-day classes once a week
  • Weekend intensives all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday every other week
  • Three full days of classes over a long weekend every three weeks
  • One week of courses each month

Although condensed scheduling is a feature that one might also find in some part-time weekend MBA programs, this scheduling exists in all executive programs for several reasons. First, condensed scheduling means students never face exhaustion from working all day and attending typical part-time MBA night classes on top of family commitments, which is a tremendous advantage for seasoned executives whose jobs may already require well beyond 40 hours each week.

Condensed scheduling also enables “fly-in” trip commuting since students often travel to attend classes from out-of-state while maintaining their current employment and career advancement possibilities. Fly-in commuting also allows students access to better MBA programs.

A Global Emphasis and Degree-Related Travel

International entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk criticized the MBA curriculum, saying that “the MBA-ization of America” doesn’t promote innovative thinking. To help graduates gain a global edge, in recent years, EMBA programs are including short-term study abroad programs in different nations, often through alliances between business schools. In addition, some executive MBA programs require extensive travel combined with substantial time spent with classmates in person.

The Global Executive MBA at Duke University provides a fascinating long-term example. The school’s 21-month program intersperses web-enabled assignments with week-long in-person sessions that rotate through Duke’s North Carolina campus along with international financial capitals like Shanghai, Santiago, New Delhi, and Berlin. Wichita State University offers a similar program, sending students to Shanghai and Berlin for global business competitions, giving students first-hand experiences in the business practices of another culture.

A More Personal Touch

Unlike full-or part-time MBA programs, EMBA programs typically offer their students personal support and attention. One way they do this is through ongoing one-on-one career coaching provided by business school staff and alumni. Other methods of providing individual support involve various concierge services they provide to save time for their busy executive students. Most EMBA programs also offer travel and lodging arrangements, textbooks and computer resources, and catered meals during classes—the hallmark characteristic of executive MBA programs.

Less Competitive Applicant Pool

Perhaps the most compelling reason to apply to an executive MBA program is that these part-time programs have less competitive applicant pools than full-time programs. And it is so compelling that, to explain this reason in detail, below we present an edited excerpt from our guide Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It?

Why is this significant? Less competition means that an applicant stands a better chance of admission. That means that one may win entry to more reputable schools offering more influential alumni networks and affiliation with more powerful university brands by applying to a school’s executive rather than a full-time division.

According to admissions consultant Liza Weale of Gatehouse Admissions, an organization that focuses on the most competitive business schools:

“The question from applicants that makes me cringe when I hear it is, “How can I differentiate myself from everyone else who is applying?” I understand where the question comes from, of course; this process is so competitive. Yet answering it most often leads you astray because answering it requires you to focus outward (on what other people are doing), not inward (your values and what matters to you). I love helping people cut out the noise around them, shift their perspective inward, and ultimately recognize their own story. These are the steps that lead to an application that reflects what makes you truly special.”

Dramatic differences in applicant competition exist between a schools’ full-time and part-time or executive divisions. For those who might benefit from admission to a part-time or executive program at a better school, this article from a recent analysis by Poets & Quants’ Rebecca Heath Anderson deserves a close reading.

According to the author, the easiest way to check if a part-time or EMBA program is a good fit is to ask yourself if you’re willing or able to leave your current job for two years. If yes, choose a full-time program; if not, seek out part-time or EMBA options.

Nowhere do the competitive differences between full-time and part-time or executive programs display so prominently as in GMAT scores. For example, consider the top ten full-time MBA programs as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Kowarski points out that with a 710 average score, the top-ranked MBAs scored 101 points higher than the 609 average for all 122 ranked programs.

However, applicants should keep in mind that many top executive MBA programs have either opted out of requiring the GMAT or—like many online MBA programs—will waive the requirement in exchange for sufficient work experience. For more about GMAT and GRE waivers, see the BSchools guide: What is a GMAT Waiver and How Does it Influence the MBA Application Process?

The Drawbacks of Executive MBA Programs

Despite the advantages listed above, disadvantages do exist. Probably the most significant disadvantage involves costs because an executive MBA is one of the most expensive degrees. Traditionally, employers have entirely underwritten the costs of executive MBA programs, but that situation has changed in recent years.

In 2021, Fortune Education reported that while the practice of companies picking up full-tuition scholarships for EMBA programs is dwindling, some companies are offering partial tuition reimbursements Companies like Disney, Capital One, AT&T, and Bank of America are a few of the companies that reimburse a fixed amount of EMBA tuition for employees.

What’s more, an employer must agree to a student’s time away from work to attend classes, which is not always available to all students. Furthermore, programs like Duke University’s may require time and resources devoted to extensive travel, often international, and students may need assistance with family obligations because of frequent long weekends away from home.

The EMBA: Concluding Thoughts

In short, part-time programs, including executive MBA programs, go beyond making a business school education accessible to those otherwise unable to afford the financial sacrifices, time commitments, and family lifestyle disruptions required by a full-time counterpart. In addition, many part-time and executive programs offer better educational quality, more influential alumni networks, and affiliation with powerful university brands.

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.

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