Executive MBA showdown: Columbia vs. Wharton

BY Rich GrisetAugust 31, 2021, 2:00 AM
People taking a walk along a road around the Columbia University grounds in Manhattan, New York. (Photo by: Peter Titmuss—Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

When it comes to executive MBA programs, few are older or more renowned than Columbia Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Started in 1968, Columbia lays claim to having the second-oldest EMBA program in existence; Wharton followed soon after in 1975. In addition to belonging to established, Ivy League schools located in big cities, both EMBA programs frequently duke it out for the top spots in national rankings. 

In its first-ever ranking of the best EMBA programs, Fortune ranked Wharton as the fourth-best, with Columbia two spots behind, at six. 

“Certainly, we are competitors, but we are also colleagues,” says Kelley Martin Blanco, senior associate dean for executive MBA and global programs at Columbia Business School. She notes that both schools have helped lead the charge to bring EMBA programs in academic parity with full-time programs. “Many, if not most, schools have followed suit.”

Wharton’s programs operate in Philadelphia and San Francisco; Columbia runs EMBA programs in New York City and through its EMBA-Global partnership program with London Business School and the University of Hong Kong.

For those applicants considering which program to choose, Fortune asked officials at each school to explain what makes their EMBA so special. Here’s what they said.

Location and residency

Though New York is inarguably the center of American finance, Columbia’s location shouldn’t be the deciding factor when choosing between the schools, says Peggy Bishop Lane, vice dean of the Wharton MBA for executives program and an adjunct accounting professor. 

“Both schools have a very strong alumni base and a strong presence in New York,” Lane says. “Wharton alumni probably go to New York more than any other city, and it’s actually our greatest feeder city, aside from San Francisco.”

Martin Blanco disagrees that Columbia’s location in New York shouldn’t factor into applicants’ decision, arguing it allows the school to employ adjunct professors who work in private equity or investment banking to teach electives, for example.

Another key difference between the programs is residency: Living on or around the campus is required at Wharton on class days, but not at Columbia. Wharton’s MBA Program for executives alternates Friday/Saturday weekends with the occasional Thursday and extended session thrown in.

“They’re expected to be on campus from Friday morning to Saturday afternoon,” says Lane of Wharton’s EMBA students. “We think that’s important, because it helps to re-create some of those bonding opportunities that our full-time MBA students have by living in the same city together.”

Students can either stay at Wharton’s conference center in Philadelphia or in a hotel near the program. 

“They’re basically on campus, but not in a dorm,” Lane adds. “We try really hard to get them out of Philadelphia by 4:00 on Saturday so they can have their Saturday evening and their Sunday with their family.”

Except for a residency period at the beginning of each core term, living on or near campus isn’t required for Columbia’s EMBA program. Because of this, many of its students live in nearby areas and commute for the program. 

A big advantage of Columbia, Martin Blanco says, is that students don’t have to take the train to Philadelphia and stay the night: “We attract people who want to be able to go home, to not have to commit to staying two nights away.”

How Columbia and Wharton compare on tuition, admissions

Both programs have rigorous admissions standards; the middle 80% GMAT range for the class entering Wharton’s EMBA program in 2021 is 660–750, while Columbia doesn’t disclose this information. 

Wharton’s 24-month EMBA program begins each May, and tuition is $210,900 for the two-year program. Tuition at Columbia, meanwhile, is $219,720.

Columbia offers two versions of its EMBA–New York program: a 20-month Friday-Saturday option that alternates weeks and a 24-month Saturday-only option that meets every week. Columbia’s 20-month EMBA-Global meets one week, once a month during its core course period. The New York Friday-Saturday option begins in August; the New York Saturday program begins in April; and the EMBA-Global program begins in May. 

Columbia has more EMBA students, Wharton has options for majors

Wharton currently has about 120 students enrolled in Philadelphia and slightly fewer in San Francisco; Columbia admits approximately 144 Friday-Saturday students in New York, 135 Saturday students in New York, and 100 EMBA-Global students each year.

To graduate, Columbia students must take 20 credit units comprising 12 electives and eight core courses; Wharton requires 19 credit units comprising nine electives and 10 core courses. A few waivers for Wharton’s core courses are possible, which increases the number of electives students can take. At Wharton, EMBA students may pursue a formal major, but aren’t required to do so. Like its full-time MBA program, Columbia doesn’t offer majors or concentrations.

Columbia is flexible with its electives; if an EMBA student wants to take an elective offered to full-time students, they may do so, as well as other electives in various formats.

“We have more programs, more students. Our scale allows us to offer more optionality to our students, specifically when it comes to electives,” says Martin Blanco.

Both schools have an international focus

A required element is Columbia’s weeklong international seminar; past destinations have included Cape Town, Munich, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Santiago, and Myanmar. In these seminars, different cohorts of Columbia’s EMBA program mix, just as they do in some electives. Columbia’s international seminars are led by faculty and usually involve local speakers and visits to companies and cultural attractions.

“There is about three hours of classroom time, and then they do some experiential activities off-site,” Martin Blanco explains.

Wharton EMBA students are required to take part in the school’s Global Business Week, a weeklong international trip. Past destinations have included China, Finland, Sweden, Cuba, Argentina, and South Africa; students of different EMBA cohorts mix on these trips. Wharton also offers optional shorter international electives. Students take part in a marketing strategy course that includes a comprehensive computer simulation game that provides realistic examples for discussion and analysis. It usually takes place on the San Francisco campus—meaning Philadelphia students must travel—and lasts five days.

“We have a huge opportunity for electives,” Lane says. “Half of our program is electives.”

Finding a niche at Wharton and Columbia

Like other students at Columbia Business School, EMBA seekers also take part in CBS Matters, an initiative in which students give presentations to their classmates about themselves or something important to them. “It’s very powerful, because it really helps people understand each other in a deeper way. It uncovers commonality that people have,” Martin Blanco says.

At Wharton, Lane says that one of the program’s biggest selling points is its elective offerings, which students may take on either coast. Some courses intended for full-time MBA students are currently being offered as electives as an experiment.

“They’re really popular, so I expect we’re going to continue doing them,” says Lane. “It’s just one half-credit class, and students can come if they want.”

Though a major isn’t required, Lane says roughly half of Wharton’s EMBA students pursue one. Popular majors include finance, management, strategic management, and entrepreneurship. More recently, the school’s business analytics major has been gaining steam. “It’s a relatively new major, and it’s skyrocketing in popularity,” she adds.

How student cohorts and alumni learning opportunities compare

There are some slight differences in the students these two top programs attract. At Wharton, the average EMBA student is 37 years old and has 13 years of work experience—and 49% of the 2023 class has an advanced degree. By comparison, the average Columbia EMBA student is 34 years old and has 10 years of work experience—and only 8% have a previous graduate degree.

The programs have other similarities, however. Both are a draw for international students; 30% of Columbia’s EMBA students were born outside the U.S., while students from 34 countries are represented in Wharton’s 2023 class profile. And women remain the minority at both schools, accounting for less than 40% of their EMBA programs.

Finally, both schools offer ways to keep alumni engaged. All Columbia Business School graduates have lifelong elective-auditing privileges. Additionally, the school just launched an initiative called Alumni Edge that offers special continuing education opportunities. All business school alums can take advantage of career management resources after they graduate.

For its graduates, Wharton offers a variety of online and in-person events, including webinars, global forums, and reunions. And students can audit classes after graduation, Lane notes.

“We allow them to take an executive education class every number of years,” she says. “There’s a long time that they’ll be working after that program ends.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.