More Einstein & Tolstoy Than Welch & Gates

David Flament, who is based in Tunisia, is studying on EMBA Global Asia, a new addition to the Columbia and London Business School alliance, with Hong Kong University brought on as a third partner. “The combination of the three (schools) gives you an edge,” Flament says. “It really gives you a broader perspective. One that your single-school… fellow MBA/EMBA students envy. Most would have opted for this programme ‘if they had known about it.’”

When multi-school and multi-continent courses began, naysayers argued that by spending less time together, and more time working by computer, students would miss out on important bonding. “No one knew what distance learning would look like,” says Erin O’Brien, the assistant dean of TRIUM. “That was before Skype became a household name. Can students have the same bonding experience meeting in residential blocks? Our experience is yes, and then some. They travel the world together!”

The logistically challenging programs have born other fruits. London Business School’s Senior Admissions Officer for EMBA programs, Linden Selby, says that EMBA-Global Americas and Europe hasn’t had a down year yet, enrolling 72 EMBAs in its most recent class. “Even in the teeth of a recession, when companies are scaling back, a program at a much higher price bracket that involves travel has been oversubscribed every year. People are realizing that if they don’t invest in their education, they can lose their jobs and benefits. Nobody can lose their education.”

These executive MBA programs bear the industry’s highest price tags. Kellogg-HKUST’s 18-month EMBA costs $124,500. EMBA Global Americas and Europe costs $144,156, up from about 100,000 when the program launched. Between tuition, travel and incidentals, Flament has spent 145,000 euros on EMBA Global Asia. And TRIUM’s tuition has risen 55% in ten years, to $140,000.

Students point out that the cost of studying full-time is far greater. “Forfeiting my salary for two years, sitting on a full-time program would have been much more painful,” quips Flament. “Plus I would have had to relocate with my family to one of those notoriously expensive cities where top business schools often dwell.”

Any sticker shock loses its bite when you consider students’ incoming salaries on some of the top programs. The first TRIUM class had an average salary of roughly $200,000. The most recent intake was $500,000, TRIUM’s O’Brien says. “I don’t think we realized who our population was until we got started. Each year, we get more applications as word gets out (about TRIUM) among senior global executives who feel they have chinks in their armor.”

By all accounts, the return on investment is healthy, too. According to data from the Financial Times, Columbia and London Business School’s EMBA-Global Americas and Europe graduates have enjoyed a 106% increase in their salaries since 2007, to an average $305,306. And schools report that roughly half of their EMBAs still receive tuition assistance from their bosses.

A big draw for globe-trotting EMBAs is the class mix. There are twenty countries represented among the 61 students on the Kellogg-HKUST program. Thirty percent of OneMBA students already have an advanced degree. And no longer are these programs filled with North Americans looking for global exposure. In the first TRIUM class, 54% of students were North Americans. Last year, that figure was just 20%, as students from the Middle East, Asia and pan European countries filled more seats.

A challenge for these programs is staying nimble. OneMBA students miss at least 20 days of work over three calendar years to attend the program, so relevance is key, Theleman says. “We’re constantly looking inward. What are the issues that continue to impact global business? How might we adapt?” Lehman Brothers collapsed while OneMBA students began their course in 2008, so the economy became the focus of their initial course. In 2009, it was health care. In 2010, it was the ‘end’ of the great recession.

The idea of having an MBA program at Brown University initially caused some raised eyebrows around campus. But the idea eventually gained traction: in October 2009, 40 interested faculty members showed up to discuss the program, says Karen Sibley, Dean of Continuing Education at Brown. “Many looked across the table and said, ‘you’re doing interesting work, and I haven’t met you.’ It was extraordinarily exciting. It’s producing outcomes we hadn’t anticipated. This curriculum is going to be mind-opening.”

In doing so, the IE Brown Executive MBA has attracted an often-absent cohort of students–women. Forty percent of its incoming class is female. (Kellogg-HKUST’s most recent EMBA class is 17% female). “The infusion of liberal arts matters a great deal and plays a big role,” says IE’s Bach. “All of these women are already successful business leaders, but they (like the men on the program) feel that to be truly successful you have to go “beyond business.”

While their first class is small, Bach and Sibley expect the numbers to grow significantly in the coming years. “We benchmarked against the very best,” says Bach. “Recently, one of our top prospects for the program decided to go with TRIUM. We were disappointed to have lost the person, but I was thrilled that we had lost somebody to TRIUM. That a candidate who ended up going for one of the top three global executive MBAs in the world… would seriously consider a completely new program with a novel and largely untested value proposition, was great news for us. It showed that we were right to benchmark against the very best and that even in our first year we’re not that far off.”


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