Highly motivated? Why an executive MBA program may be right for you

BY Rich GrisetSeptember 09, 2021, 4:00 AM
Martin Laksman

If you’re feeling stuck on the corporate ladder—or simply want a leg up to the next rung—you may be contemplating an executive MBA program. In addition to furthering your career, this variation of the degree can lead to a double-digit increase in earnings and expand your networking pool. 

Yet EMBA programs are also expensive and time-consuming.

The top 10 schools on Fortune’s ranking of the best EMBA programs have an average cost of more than $197,000. And that doesn’t include the intangible cost of your time; these programs typically last two years and require some in-person sessions on campus. With most EMBA students a decade out from attaining their undergraduate degrees, they also have to juggle a busy career and personal life while attending school.

If the obstacles listed above don’t dissuade you, you may be a good fit for an EMBA program. This route to a business degree is a different beast than other programs, but can be a good fit for specific types of applicants.

“The one thing that is consistent is these are folks that are highly motivated,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC), an academic association that represents the industry. “It isn’t always the person that’s looking just to make more money. These days, more and more, it’s people that are looking to have an impact.”

Is an EMBA program right for you? And how can you get your employer to help pay the cost? Here’s what you need to know.

The executive MBA: A degree for the working professional

Compared with a traditional MBA program, an EMBA is designed for students who are further along in their careers and want to attend school while continuing to work full-time. EMBA programs offer different part-time schedules, and classes are often held on Friday and Saturday nights. Like a full-time MBA program, EMBA programs typically take two years to complete.

EMBA programs have become increasingly popular, with enrollment growing 68% over the past decade, according to figures from Caryn L. Beck-Dudley, president and CEO of AACSB International, a business school accreditor and nonprofit association. “Primarily that’s coming from executives who really want to skill up in the business disciplines [and who] didn’t undertake a business undergraduate degree,” she adds.

Who are EMBA programs built for?

EMBA students are typically older and have more work experience compared with candidates in full-time programs. Whereas an EMBA student is typically between 12 and 20 years out of undergraduate school, most full-time MBA students are just three to seven years into the workforce. 

Age does make applicants a good fit for an EMBA program versus other types of MBA programs, says Beck-Dudley. Often, EMBA students have been successful in their careers, but have hit a ceiling in their advancement. Obtaining an EMBA is a way to move into a more managerial role. 

“It’s really [for] a seasoned professional who wants to expand their skill set,” Beck-Dudley says.

An EMBA allows learners to gain leadership skills and better understand financial outcomes at their jobs. Pursuing an EMBA can help candidates rise the ranks at their current companies, change tracks within their career fields, or help them switch careers entirely. 

While professionals from all disciplines pursue EMBA degrees, Desiderio says the health care, pharmaceutical, biotech, technology, financial services, and manufacturing industries feed the most applicants into EMBA programs. Typically, EMBA applicants already have management experience, overseeing budgets and other employees.

So what’s the benefit of pursuing an EMBA versus just plugging away at your current job? In addition to providing a core curriculum featuring finance, marketing, accounting, and operations, Desiderio says EMBA programs teach soft skills and help give students an outside perspective on business. 

“It’s hard to get that when you’re immersed in your role at your job,” Desiderio says. “You’re within your bubble, and your EMBA takes you outside your bubble.”

The advancing digital age means that job applicants are increasingly contending with an employment pool that could include people across the country and across the world, and an EMBA can also give candidates a competitive advantage.

“The market is changing too rapidly for any of us to sit still, and lifelong learning is critical to career development,” says Beck-Dudley. “Those employees that commit to refreshing and expanding their skills will make the strongest impacts in their careers.”

What should you look for in an EMBA program?

While you may be a good fit for an EMBA program, you also need to find a program that’s a good fit for you. First and foremost, Beck-Dudley says, EMBA seekers should research the quality of the faculty at the programs they’re considering.

Other concerns include the program’s alumni network and curriculum. Regarding the latter, make sure you’re not duplicating a knowledge base that you already have. Convenience is also a consideration, as both commuting and class time will impact your personal life.

Still, there’s an upside to being in the trenches for two years with the same cohort of students. 

“Because it’s so intense, and most [EMBA programs] are cohort driven, [students] become best friends for life,” Beck-Dudley says, adding that in Silicon Valley, EMBA grads who are starting companies often reach out to former classmates.

Cost and return

Globally, Desiderio says EMBA programs cost $87,000 on average. Highly sought after EMBA programs, like those of Columbia and Wharton, are in the $200,000 range.

These high costs can pay off.

“It’s a huge financial investment,” Beck-Dudley says. “But you also have to spread what the cost is over your next five, 10, 15 years of your professional environment. If you’ve topped out your discipline or your current role, you’re not going to get the salary increases that you want. Most people that do an EMBA see a pretty substantial rise in salary over the next five years after they’ve completed it.”

Still, Desiderio warns that an EMBA alone is no guarantee of success.

“It’s usually a double-digit salary increase, but the thing that I always caution people [is] this is average. Just because you go get the degree, it’s not a guarantee of any change for you,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to do something with it.”

How can I get my employer to pay for my EMBA?

When the University of Chicago (Booth) launched the world’s first EMBA program in 1943, 100% of its students had their education paid for by their employer. “There was a period in our industry where if you weren’t fully supported by your employer, you couldn’t even come to an executive MBA program,” Desiderio notes.

Times have changed, and over the past 15 years Desiderio has witnessed a downward trend of employers paying fully for students’ tuition. These days, Desiderio says employees who seek to have their employer pay for some or all of their EMBA degree should have a frank conversation with management. 

While Desiderio says he’s heard of companies in the past requiring employees to sign contracts saying they’ll stay with the company a certain number of years in exchange for financial support—or risk having to pay the company back—he says that seems less common these days.

Overall, Desiderio says people should understand that these programs are substantial undertakings. “These are not for the faint of heart,” he says. “Know that when you do it, it’s a lot of work. It’s rigorous.”

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