Meet the MBA road warriors

March 15, 2011, 1:19 PM UTC

Would you travel over 14,000 miles every other weekend for an MBA? These hardy souls do it and don’t have too many qualms about the payback either.

( — George Clooney, step aside.

You’re a piker next to Harsh Gupta, the quintessential “Up in the Air” road warrior (referring to the 2009 movie starring Clooney, who plays a consultant that travels over 300 days a year on business).

Every other weekend, Gupta flies 7,261 miles through 10 time zones from Dubai to Chicago simply to get an executive MBA degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill. All told, the roundtrip travel costs $4,800 a pop, consumes 30 hours in the air, and adds 14,522 miles to his frequent flyer account.

“I meet people and they ask, ‘So, where do you come from?’ When I say, ‘Dubai,” I see their jaws drop to their chests,” says Gupta, the chief executive of his own consumer electronics company. “It’s an expression that’s impossible to describe, but it is worth seeing.”

By the time he graduates with his executive MBA at year-end, Gupta will have spent 1,140 hours in the air — not including the inevitable flight delays and cancellations — traveling a total of over 500,000 miles just to get the degree. And he will have spent more money on business class airplane tickets — $182,400 — than the $153,900 cost of tuition. “But if I capitalize the expense over my life span,” he says, like a true MBA, “I am sure the returns will be far greater.”

An army of B-school globetrotters

Believe it or not, Gupta is hardly alone. Almost all of the premier business schools boast about full-time executives willing to endure the proverbial commute from hell to earn a prestige piece of parchment. These MBA road warriors make huge sacrifices in money and time to get an elite graduate business education, putting considerable strain on both their work lives and their families.

Indeed, even school administrators are bemused by these execs’ willingness to travel thousands of miles every other week to attend class. One executive MBA at IE Business School endures an eight-hour flight from his home country of India to the school in Madrid, Spain, every other week. “Can you imagine that?” says Dean Santiago Iniguez de Onzono. “It’s heroic.”

Consider Christopher Min, an American-born consultant for Accenture who lives in Seoul, South Korea: Every other Friday and Saturday, he sits in a San Francisco class, studying for an executive MBA at The Wharton School’s West Coast campus. Nearly one in every five students in the program comes from outside of California, but mostly from nearby states such as Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Min clearly has the longest commute in his class — a 12-hour flight. “On Thursday, I board a flight to San Francisco, study eight hours on the plane, and arrive in California early afternoon on Thursday, rest and prepare for classes on Friday morning,” he says. “I then fly back to Seoul on Monday and arrive there on Tuesday evening.”

The schedule eventually got so grueling that Min decided to rent an apartment next to the Wharton building in San Francisco so he could occasionally spend two weeks working from the U.S. “You learn to adjust and make time out of seemingly full schedules to get school work done,” says Min.

Why does Min spend an extra $3,000 a month on airfare and put himself through the extra pressure of travel when he could have gotten a degree closer to home?

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t choose Wharton for the influence and prestige that comes with the Wharton brand,” he says. “In Korea, the name of the school one attends is a big deal.”

Making time for class, work, and, err, family?

Executive MBA programs are highly challenging experiences. In addition to holding down demanding full-time jobs, students typically spend 20 hours a week studying, alternating weekends in class and occasional residential weeks in far flung locales. Tacking on hours navigating airports across multiple time zones onto an already frenetic schedule can take its toll — particularly on those who have families.

Arun Sasikumar Nair commutes from Singapore to Toronto’s Rotman global executive MBA program — along with immersion weeks in Brazil, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Budapest. He got engaged a year and a half ago. “This experience has definitely tested our relationship and the strength of it,” he says. “Traveling every two or three months for extended periods of time is not easy on your partner or your family, for sure. They don’t get to see you…I think it would be extremely hard if someone didn’t have their partner’s undying support like I have.”

Some even gain comfort from the compartmentalization the traveling provides. Stephanie Carlton, a health policy adviser for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, doesn’t mind the 3,000-mile roundtrip commute to the University of Texas in Austin from Washington every other Thursday evening. “Traveling to Texas helps me separate work from school. When I’m in Washington, I focus on reforming Medicare and Medicaid. When I’m in Austin, I focus on Dr. Rao’s next corporate finance exam.”

Carlton is also going to Texas in part because the program is about $20,000 less expensive than Georgetown University’s offering, even after accounting for the travel costs. “There’s some economic logic to my commuting decision,” she says.

Recession makes a harsh commute even harsher

These already hellish commutes have grown even more tortuous because of cutbacks in both flight schedules and corporate support for executive education.

When Christopher Bouck initially signed up for Cornell University’s executive MBA program, airlines offered many direct flights to New York from the Cayman Islands, where he lives and works as an accounting manager for ABN AMRO. The Dutch bank also had a tuition reimbursement program.

“I thought I’d have it relatively easy,” Bouck says. “But as the economy unraveled, many airlines cut down the flights so now I have to fly using connections.” His job also closed the window on tuition reimbursement, forcing him to foot the entire $145,380 cost of the 22-month program. “A number of my classmates had their anticipated corporate funding dry up during this time as well,” he adds.

Despite the setbacks, Bouck went ahead, making the 3,000-mile roundtrip nearly every other weekend. Typically, he’ll work half a day on Friday and head to the airport for a 2 p.m. flight to Miami and arriving at Cornell by midnight for Saturday morning class. By Sunday afternoon, he’s heading home.

The experience has made him a “very efficient traveler, sort of like George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air,’” he says. “I travel in economy, but I get the best seats (reclining exit row window seats), go through the shortest lines, and I have everything ready ahead of time. I can move through an airport with lightning efficiency. That is a skill which will be with me for life.”

Those skills will be further tested when Bouck and his wife have their first child at the end of this month. “Having gone through this hectic schedule for about 20 months now, I feel a bit shell-shocked,” he admits. “Once it’s all over with, I’m sure I will look back and realize that all the travel, expense, and time away from home was a small price to pay for the experience, the friends that I have made, and my Ivy League degree.”

“Is it worth it?” he asks aloud. “Absolutely.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Harsh Gupta would need to travel over 20 million miles to complete his executive MBA degree. We have corrected this sentence with the proper mileage estimate, which is over 500,000 miles.

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