Online MBA versus executive MBA: How the programs compare

BY Meghan MalasSeptember 03, 2021, 02:00 am
Commuters arrive to Ruggles Station in Roxbury, Boston, as seen in July 2021.
Photo by Erin Clark—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Busy professionals looking to boost their careers must grapple with a dilemma: An MBA could help pave the way to a C-suite position, but they can’t put their work on pause to pursue a graduate degree. Two popular options, online MBA and executive MBA (EMBA) programs, offer the necessary flexibility for people who want to advance their careers without putting their current job on halt.

Both programs have become more popular in recent years. EMBA programs saw a 31.6% increase in applications between 2015 and 2019, according to a 2019 survey by the Executive MBA Council. In 2020, 84% of schools reported an increase in applications to their online MBA programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2020 Application Trends Survey. 

Although online and EMBA programs offer a similar degree of flexibility for working students, people trying to choose between the two should consider admissions requirements, program schedules, cost, and personal learning style preferences.

Differing admissions requirements

Online and EMBA programs cater to different types of students, and have different admissions requirements. Because EMBA programs are designed for executives, professionals must have the necessary work and managerial experience required to be admitted.

At the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business, the executive MBA program requires a minimum of eight years of professional experience, while the rest of UF Warrington’s MBA programs, including the online track, require only two years of experience to apply. Student Sam Campion says many of his peers in his EMBA cohort at the university hold leadership positions, so the experienced students benefit from being able to learn from one another, as well as their professors.

“One of the biggest reasons that I decided to even go after an EMBA was the professional network,” notes Campion, who has worked in finance roles at the Walt Disney Co. for more than a decade and enrolled at Warrington in 2020. He adds that the university draws a lot of students who are either based in Florida or in the Southeast region, which offers networking opportunities. 

Extensive work experience requirements are common for EMBA programs. Schools require 14.3 years of professional work experience, on average, for EMBA program enrollees, according to a 2020 survey organized by the Executive MBA Council. By comparison, applicants to top online MBA programs have an average of six to 10 years of work experience, according to several business school administrators that spoke to Fortune earlier this year.  

Moreover, testing requirements typically differ between these two types of programs. Many EMBA programs don’t require GMAT or GRE test scores because applicants have already demonstrated the knowledge and experience needed to succeed in an MBA program. Some schools may require applicants to take the Executive Assessment, a test developed by the Graduate Management Admission Council to measure the readiness (instead of aptitude) of executive MBA program applicants. 

It’s more common for online MBA programs to require GMAT or GRE scores, which can be submitted for up to five years after taking the test. Some business schools have test waivers for applicants who meet certain criteria, including professional experience or academic achievements. 

Online programs may offer more flexibility

Online MBA programs tend to be more flexible than EMBA programs. While both online and EMBA programs are designed for full-time workers, online MBA programs usually allow for people to do work throughout the week at home, while EMBA programs may require some in-person attendance. 

Caroline Beasley, a University of Florida online MBA student, always knew she wanted to enroll in an online program when the time came to pursue an MBA degree. As a military spouse, mom, and CPA, she knew an in-person program would be very difficult to pursue. She attends her online classes from Rota, Spain, and plans to graduate in 2022. 

At the University of Florida, EMBA students come to campus about one weekend each month for live lectures, while online MBA students come to campus only once, for orientation, and complete the rest of the program virtually. 

Kim Abel, executive director of executive education at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, says the individuals she speaks with typically want to be a part of the executive MBA program because of the experiences it will afford them. But, sometimes lifestyle, family, or work obligations, compel them to choose a more flexible program structure.

Abel said the course content across all the MBA programs at Katz is the same. What varies is the delivery. At Katz, part-time online MBA students organize their own track, while executive MBA students move through a predetermined course track in their cohorts. 

That means the online program allows professionals to move through the same course content offered through any of Katz’s other MBA programs, but at their own pace. On average, part-time online students finish the program in seven semesters, with most participants taking six credit hours a term. 

Meanwhile, the Katz EMBA program runs for five terms. More than ever, many EMBA programs are embracing a hybrid online and in-person model. If a hybrid learning model is flexible enough to accommodate a busy professional’s schedule, he or she does not have to rule out enrolling in an EMBA program. 

Executive MBA programs typically cost more than online programs

Executive MBA programs tend to cost significantly more than online programs, notes Paige Bausman, assistant dean of MBA programs at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. But they also tend to have a high return on investment. Most EMBA students enter the program in managerial positions, aspiring to reach top roles at their companies, which also pay the most.

Among the schools consulted for this piece, the total costs of pursuing an EMBA versus an online MBA add up to a difference of about $13,600 (at Warrington) to as much as nearly $25,500 (at Eller).

As for the return on investment, the Executive MBA Council’s 2020 survey found that the average salary and bonus package for students at the start of a program was $169,269. Upon completion of the degree, the average salary and bonus package had risen to $193,200.

Business college administrators say earning potential for graduates from online MBA programs is comparable to that of graduates from other types of MBA programs. MBA recipients in 2021 will earn over $29,000 more than people who earned only their bachelor’s degree in business, according to compensation projections from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

While online MBA programs tend to be less expensive than in-person programs, the cost is still considerable. Scholarship, employer sponsorship, and grant opportunities are typically available for both online and EMBA programs.

Consider your personal learning style

Out of necessity, many online programs have evolved significantly in the past year, allowing those who prefer an online style of learning to enjoy a more improved, dynamic approach to the MBA degree. Assuming prospective students have comparable work experience, they can then choose which program to pursue by basing the decision on their learning style and preferences. 

Match the program to your preference, in order to make the knowledge and the MBA experience as accessible as possible, advises Sara Moeller, associate dean for graduate programs and executive education at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz.

That said, certain opportunities offered through an in-person, executive MBA program may not be easy to replicate online. The emphasis on cohort collaboration in most EMBA programs, potential opportunities for trips abroad or across the U.S., or networking with other organizations or company leaders at a similar career stage is considered integral to the MBA experience for some students. 

Ultimately, if an applicant’s decision comes down to personal learning style, experts recommend identifying which aspects of receiving an MBA will be most valuable and important, and then selecting the program that best meets those qualifications.

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