The World’s Most Expensive MBA

Students of the Wharton Executive MBA program at Wharton West take time to meet in one of the rooms used for study groups in the historic Folger Building. (Photo by Jakob Masur)

Sticker shock. The term doesn’t only apply to luxury cars and yachts. For most newcomers to the Executive MBA game, one of the early and big surprises is exactly how much the top programs cost.

For all the hand-wringing over the cost of a full-time MBA, it turns out that the most expensive graduate business degrees in the world are not the highly publicized two-year, full-time experiences at places like Harvard and Stanford. Instead, the bulging pricetags are on elite part-time programs designed for mid-career executives.

The most costly Executive MBA in the world? It’s Wharton’s 24-month MBA for executives at its West Coast campus in downtown San Francisco. At a cost of $172,200, students are effectively paying nearly $250 an hour for the pleasure of sitting in a class with 50 other people. That’s nearly $100 more per contact hour with faculty than the regular full-time MBAs at Wharton pay. For every one of the roughly 700 hours a Wharton professor teaches Executive MBAs, the school is collecting a tidy $12,300.

The second most expensive program? It’s also Wharton’s Executive MBA program, this time on the East Coast, where the tuition and fees now come to $162,300. Those considerable sums compare with the $108,000 in total tuition and fees forked over by the full-time students back on the main Philadelphia campus. Wharton’s Executive MBA business alone now brings in more than $35 million in annual revenues, with little more than 400 total students.

Why is there such a big difference in the cost of these top-ranked EMBA programs over those at other schools? “It’s like anything else, whether you’re talking about buying Pepsi or Sam’s brand of cola,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, the trade group representing EMBA programs. “There is a value inherently tied to a brand.” In fact, the average cost of an EMBA program, says Desiderio, is only $65,655. “So it’s a huge continuum, ranging from a low of $30,000 to a high of $170,000.”

Anjani Jain, Wharton’s vice dean, MBA Program for Executives, obviously thinks Wharton programs are worth the premium. “The cost of the program, when normalized with respect to the number of contact hours and the inclusion of room and board during program weekends, is actually comparable to that of peer institutions,” Jain insists. “Many other EMBA programs have substantially fewer contact hours, or don’t include room and board in the base tuition.”

Of course, at the high end, as Jain points out, Wharton’s program is a premium experience that includes meals, accommodations, and professors who are among the best business faculty in the world. In Philadelphia, execs stay on alternating Friday nights in Wharton’s fairly plush executive education residence facility, while in San Francisco, they’re put up in at the upscale Hotel Le Meridian in the financial district within walking distance of Wharton’s West Coast campus. For another, many business schools believe there is less price sensitivity in a market catering to already successful executives in their mid-to-late 30s who don’t have to quit their jobs to get the executive version of the MBA degree.

No wonder there are now nearly two dozen Executive MBA programs around the world that cost six figures (see the list of the most expensive on the next page). Increasingly, the most expensive programs feature international excursions for which meals and accomodations are covered (though airfare is not). Duke University’s Global Executive MBA program, for example, boasts five residential sessions, with 60% of the classroom time in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It carries a $146,600 pricetag that includes lodging and meals. Or there is Trium, a three-way collaborative program among New York University, the London School of Economics, and HEC Paris. That program costs $140,000.

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