How to get your employer to pay for your executive MBA degree

BY Jason ArmestoSeptember 01, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

There’s the dream of adding an executive MBA from a school like Wharton to your résumé, and then there’s the reality: a price tag of about $211,000. When planning how to finance that degree, many people will seek out scholarships or rely on student loans to foot the bill—though you may be surprised by how much financial help you can get from your employer.

While it was common for companies to pay the full price tag for a promising employee’s MBA education some 30 to 40 years ago, that practice has since changed. “The expectation was that person would stick around and move up through the ranks and eventually lead the company,” says Bill Kooser, director at Fortuna Admissions. As more and more students began using MBAs as a way to accelerate a career leap and the price of the programs outpaced inflation, companies no longer see paying full tuition as a great investment. 

Although increasingly rare, some EMBA students can still get full sponsorship from their employers, and many more students get partial sponsorship to foot the bill of their education. The MBA for executives program at Wharton, for instance, estimates that 70% of applicants get full or partial financial support from their employers. 

Asking your company to help pay for your education can be an intimidating conversation, but it’s absolutely a conversation worth having. “Students may say, ‘I’ve been saving for this. I don’t need the money,’” says Barbara Craft, director of admissions for the Wharton MBA program for executives in San Francisco. “But it’s always worth the ask. You may be very surprised.” 

How to start the process with your company

Before you talk to anyone in your organization about your EMBA aspirations, you need to do your homework. First, narrow down the programs that can help you reach your career goals and understand the time commitments those programs will require. Then find out if your company already has relevant policies in place, such as tuition reimbursement, and learn about any eligibility requirements. Finally, consult other people at your company who have pursued an MBA while working there. 

Gathering all of that information allows you to put together a game plan for how to approach your employer about financing. “I tell candidates, ‘This is your first big business case,’” Craft says. “Because they should be crafting their own story and a detailed proposal as to why this is important as part of their career and why it’s important for the company to be part of this journey.” 

What’s in it for your employer 

Attaining an EMBA should bring a lot of value to your career, but to get funding from your employer, you’ll need to make the case for how your EMBA will bring value to the company. “Make the argument that you’ll be a better employee once the degree is done,” says Kooser. 

He notes that pursuing your executive MBA will give the company an employee who has a deeper understanding of the industry and thus is better positioned to lead the organization in the future. Not only that, an EMBA will also give you a multitude of networking possibilities; because everyone in the program is employed, your classmates are potentially future customers, suppliers, or business partners, all of which could help your company’s bottom line. 

And because your education will be ongoing as you continue working, you can bring some of the lessons from business school back to your role. “If there’s a particularly interesting classroom conversation that happens, or a case that you covered that you think would really add value to the organization, bring that back to the company and share it with your manager,” Craft advises. 

Keep your company updated on your program

Bringing lessons from your EMBA courses back to your team isn’t just a talking point to persuade your employer to sponsor you, it’s also a reminder that investing in you was a smart decision. Additionally, Craft says it could persuade your managers to offer you more funding in the future. 

“If they say they’re going to sponsor you for half, continue to bring that value back to the company and keep the door open to say, ‘That’s awesome, and I’m really grateful. Can we revisit this at a later date once you see the value added and what I’m gaining?’” says Craft. “Maybe they’d come back and give a little more the next year.”

Get creative with your funding options 

Although your company may have a set education reimbursement policy, if you think outside the box, you could be able to get even more funding. While you should certainly express gratitude for whatever financing you’re offered, Craft thinks it doesn’t hurt to ask if money from other budgets is available. 

“Companies may have a tuition reimbursement budget, but sometimes there are professional development or training and development budgets that a manager could tap into,” she says. 

If pursuing an EMBA means you’ll miss an out-of-state conference, you might ask that the participation fee go toward your education instead, Craft notes. Or maybe you could get more funding if you offered to stay at the company for a certain amount of time after getting your degree. And while tuition reimbursement is great, a raise could be even better. 

As long as you’re prepared, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Plus, it could show ambition. 

“Sometimes having this conversation may make a company look at the employee differently as well, because it shows a desire to make a stronger contribution to the organization: to want to personally develop themselves to be better,” Craft says. 

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