Executive MBA vs. traditional MBA: How careers and pay prospects stack up

BY Kara DriscollAugust 31, 2021, 2:00 AM
UC Berkeley Haas Business School professor Panos Patatoukas conducts his Financial Information Analysis MBA class to an empty classroom with the help of technical aids while students log on virtually to watch his lecture, as seen in March 2020. (Jessica Christian—The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

If you’re a professional aiming to take your career to the next level, you might be weighing the benefits and pitfalls of enrolling in either a traditional MBA or an executive MBA program. Both programs require high admissions standards and follow rigorous curriculums, but the delivery and structure of the programs differ and are often designed with specific professionals in mind. 

Since Harvard University established the first MBA program more than 100 years ago, schools have continued to offer a variety of different options. From full-time to part-time and online programs, the MBA offers business professionals the opportunity to advance their careers. This degree helps prepare professionals for management roles or for a transition to a different career path, and an EMBA caters to full-time working professionals who want to reach the highest levels of management in their current industries.

Here’s what you need to know about program formats, career options, and compensation prospects before choosing between a traditional and an executive MBA program.

Ideal candidates for EMBA and MBA programs

While a traditional MBA program can be an asset for professionals at any point in their career, the executive MBA option is geared toward professionals aiming to rise to a C-suite role. The average executive MBA student is 38 years old and often already has experience in managerial positions. Ideal candidates are typically in middle management or director roles and are looking to advance into senior leadership.

EMBA programs are becoming increasingly popular. Applications to these programs have increased nearly 32% since 2015, according to the Executive MBA Council’s annual member survey. The survey gathers data from more than 200 colleges and universities in 30 countries.

EMBAs are a sought-after, “valuable credential” for those people interested in a senior leadership role, says Bill Chionis, principal consultant at Stacy Blackman Consulting. Programs teach skills that translate across all industries.

Chionis has spent years helping candidates get into top EMBA programs, and he says the ideal candidate will exhibit academic readiness, in addition to having leadership and management experience. Students will be asked to share with their cohort about past successes and failures—and individuals willing to reflect on their skills add value to the program. 

“They’re also looking at candidates holistically as human beings,” Chionis says. “All programs have different cultures, philosophies, perspectives, and histories. They deliver a similar EMBA curriculum in different ways, and they’re interested in candidates who will be an exceptional fit into the program.” 

Conversely, professionals with a range of work experience can apply for traditional full-time MBA programs, which can help them move upward in their current field or transition to another industry.

Career and salary prospects for EMBAs and traditional MBAs

For Purdue University’s EMBA program, ideal applicants “have dealt with the challenges of leading others in for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations, and military service, as well,” notes Aldas P. Kriauciunas, executive director of the program. That means the degree broadly translates across industries, he says, adding that professionals in health care, manufacturing, and financial services are leading the pack in earning EMBA degrees.

“People seek upward mobility at their current organizations, but if they find that their new skills aren’t being valued, that’s when they start looking elsewhere,” Kriauciunas says. “When they do change organizations, they’re not changing industries.”

While professionals pursuing a traditional MBA will often make a career switch to another industry, Kriauciunas says that is rarely the case for seasoned professionals earning an EMBA. As students graduate and continue their work, they see promotions to higher leadership roles in their existing companies and significant salary gains within two to three years. 

On average, EMBA graduates received a 14.1% increase in compensation—including both salary and bonuses—after completing a program, according to the 2020 Executive MBA Council’s student exit survey. Students started the program earning an average salary and bonus package of $169,269, according to the survey. By graduation, that amount had risen to $193,200.

Purdue EMBA graduates surveyed in 2020 expected to see a salary increase of about 40%, or $60,000, within two years of graduation, with a range of salaries depending on the region where the graduates were employed. Beyond career trajectory and salary increases, Kriauciunas says the EMBA offers practical education that leads to confidence in leadership ability.

“These are accomplished individuals coming into EMBA programs, but often they really haven’t been formally trained in some respects,” he says. “For example, if they haven’t taken any advanced accounting or finance classes, they can’t be a leader yet in those discussions because they don’t have the background or knowledge. So students comment on the confidence and maturity that they gain. I think it does lead to greater job satisfaction.”

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