How To Decide Between An EMBA Or An MBA

MBA or EMBA? Deciding what's right for you.

The year-over-year drop in applications to MBA programs has been making headlines, but it doesn’t signal a waning interest in advanced business education degrees. The number of apps to Executive MBA (EMBA) programs was an astonishing 31.6% higher in 2019 than in 2015, according to the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC). Moreover, enrollment among women to EMBA programs is the highest ever (also 31%).

As former Associate Dean at Chicago Booth, and someone who spent many years at the helm of Booth’s pioneering EMBA program (in addition to full-time MBA Admissions, Career Services, and International Programs), it’s proof positive that the Executive MBA is delivering on its value proposition and attracting ever more managers looking to take their leadership to the next level.

When the University of Chicago launched the world’s first MBA for working executives in 1943, its EMBA was designed to provide middle and upper-middle managers with the skills and tools necessary to move into the ranks of general management. Since that time, the growth of EMBA programs worldwide has been phenomenal, attracting more seasoned candidates looking to successfully lead their organizations in the future.

In my previous role as Booth’s dean, and now as a Director at Fortuna Admissions, I’m frequently asked about the benefits and distinctions of pursuing an EMBA versus an MBA, particularly for those seeking the most prestigious of business degrees. Not all EMBA programs are equal, and many prospective candidates don’t fully understand what an Executive MBA is (and isn’t).

As a starting point, consider what program format is most appropriate. Nowadays, your advanced business degree options are many: Full time, part-time, modular, distance learning – all are potential options depending on your circumstances and career goals. Here’s how to assess some of the choices you’ll face:

1. Part-time or full time. Full-time programs give you the “complete” MBA experience. Not only will you get the MBA education, but you’ll be able to participate in all of the extra-curricular activities that surround the program. You’ll also have more time to think about your career and what you want to do next. That’s also the downside of full-time programs – much of your time will be spent looking for a job – sometimes to the detriment of your education.

The greatest benefit of a part-time program is obviously the fact that you don’t have to give up your job (and an income) to earn the degree. For many people, that alone is reason enough to undertake a part-time option. Often, part-time students are older, with more experience, enriching the classroom discussion. On the downside, part-time students don’t often have the time to take advantage of many of the “extra” activities that many schools provide.

Caution: One thing to look out for is whether the part-time program is truly equivalent to the school’s full-time offering. In some cases, part-time programs will have a very different faculty and may offer a different diploma than the full-time program from the same school. As a result, the quality of the program may be quite different from its full-time counterpart.

2. Executive MBA or traditional MBA program. The average age of students in the world’s top full-time MBA programs is about 28, with typically three-to-five years of work experience. They offer a wide array of courses and are designed to prepare students for positions in functional management such as finance or marketing.

Executive-level MBA programs, on the other hand, have an average age of 38 years old with approximately 14 years of work experience and about nine years of management experience. That’s a vastly different community in the classroom, bringing with it a level of career experience you won’t see in a traditional full-time program. EMBA programs, constrained by time and format with actively working candidates, tend to provide very focused general management education, with fewer elective courses. They are typically designed to prepare students for general management roles or positions that span several functions and are usually offered part-time.

Caution: Some executive MBA programs offer a scaled-down version of an MBA and actually offer a different degree altogether (the diploma may actually read EMBA degree). To be certain of quality and marketability, look for a program that offers the same degree as the school’s full-time program and which is taught by the same faculty as the School’s other programs (like Chicago Booth or Kellogg).

3. Distance learning or traditional classroom programs. More and more schools are offering courses and even full degree programs online. They provide flexibility, convenience, and access to many students that would otherwise be unable to undertake an MBA. On the other hand, distance learning programs don’t allow face-to-face contact with faculty and other students that can be so important in developing long term relationships.

Caution: Many distance learning programs also suffer from a high “drop out” rate. Many of the students who start these programs never finish. If you’re considering a distance learning program, examine the completion rate of its students and the technological support on offer by the institution.

There are several unique reasons you might pursue the EMBA over a traditional MBA, especially if you’re a seasoned professional with considerable experience under your belt. My Fortuna colleague, William Kotas (former Kellogg Director and alum), offers helpful insights in his 8-minute video strategy session, Comparing Business School Programs: EMBA versus MBA.

From my perspective, when deciding between options, the most important thing to discern is what you want to get out of your advanced business degree. EMBA programs will provide a tremendous opportunity to work with high performing professionals from all over the world, develop a very strong network, and hone those basic business skills to enhance your career in general management. Spend time researching programs to feel confident about which one will best suit your own goals.

For more about the benefits of the EMBA, check out my related blog, 5 Key Differences Between the EMBA & the MBA.

Fortuna-Admissions-LogoFortuna Admissions Director Bill Kooser is former Associate Dean at Chicago Booth. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.


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