What Is an Executive MBA?


Published August 10, 2023 · 5 Min Read

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Executive master of business administration degrees offer an intensive but flexible curriculum for working professionals.

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  • An executive master of business administration (EMBA) degree prepares students for senior leadership and managerial positions.
  • Executive MBA programs are geared toward working professionals and usually require around 10 or more years of experience for admission.
  • Classes for EMBA programs are typically held in a cohort model outside of regular work hours, such as on evenings and weekends.

Former NFL tight end Byron Chamberlain has already had a storied career, winning two Super Bowls and making a Pro Bowl appearance. But now, he's undertaking a new challenge: an executive master of business administration (EMBA) degree.

Chamberlain, who led his own nonprofit foundation to help underserved communities after retiring from the NFL, enrolled at Fordham University's Gabelli Graduate School of Business to pursue the degree, according to the Fordham Observer.

Executive MBA programs are an option for business leaders who want to earn an MBA while working full time and usually include the same core classes as traditional programs, according to the Executive MBA Council. They also include key differences in format, services, and opportunities, and often feature a consistent cohort of fellow students.

Chamberlain lives in Los Angeles, but he commutes monthly with a classmate to New York City to attend classes at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus. He told the Fordham Observer that he enjoyed the executive MBA program's small classroom size and consistent cohort and said the degree would open up opportunities for him.

Executive MBA programs can help mid-career professionals move into senior leadership roles, and they often offer flexible schedules geared toward allowing students to work while earning their degree. Here's what you need to know about the specialized programs:

How Is an Executive MBA Different From a Regular MBA?

Executive MBA programs are mostly aimed at mid-career professionals as opposed to more traditional MBA programs, which market mostly to younger professionals, according to the Quantic School of Business and Technology.

The average executive MBA candidate has at least eight years of work experience, and their ages usually range from 32-44, according to Quantic.

Executive MBA programs typically confer the same degree as their full-time counterparts, like at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. Executive MBA programs are geared toward professionals who want to continue working full time while earning their MBA, according to the Wharton School.

Executive MBA classes usually take place outside of typical business hours, according to Coursera, like on Friday evenings or weekends. Because of that condensed format, more material tends to be packed into each class.

Executive MBA

  • Intended for professionals with 10+ years of experience
  • Classes take place outside of regular business hours
  • Students typically continue working full time
  • Curriculum is focused and features fewer specializations
  • Small cohort size

Traditional, Full-Time MBA

  • Intended for professionals with 1-5 years of experience
  • Classes typically take place on campus
  • Students attend full time, in person
  • Programs often require internships
  • Curriculum often includes focused concentrations or specializations

Sources: Coursera, University of Pennsylvania

The executive MBA curriculum typically includes the same core framework as regular MBA degree programs, but it varies substantially in the way it's delivered because the degree is geared toward mid-career professionals with full-time jobs.

Programs are fast paced and sometimes require fewer optional electives than a traditional MBA.

Typical MBA curriculum includes courses in widely applicable fields like marketing, human resources, operations, leadership and ethics, accounting, and other disciplines. A typical MBA takes 2-4 years to complete, but most executive MBA programs take two years or less.

Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, cautioned against comparing the earnings of traditional MBA graduates and graduates of executive MBA programs. Executive MBA graduates typically have years of additional work experience compared to traditional MBA graduates, Desiderio said.

"You can't compare it to the full-time space because it's just like a totally different student profile and place in their career," Desiderio said.

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What Are the Admission Requirements for an Executive MBA Program?

Executive MBA admissions requirements vary by school, but several years of work experience is generally a requirement.

Applicants to MIT's Executive MBA program need to be employed full time and have at least 10 years of "relevant, post-undergraduate work experience." At the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, that requirement is eight years — although the average is 15 years among the program's students. Cornell's SC Johnson College of Business requires a minimum of seven years of work experience, but the program average is 12.

In addition to work experience, other executive MBA application requirements may include:

  • A current resume
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Written essays
  • An undergraduate degree, although some schools have exceptions to this requirement. At Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, for example, the GMAT test is only required if applicants don't have a bachelor's degree. Some applicants can also be asked to take the GMAT based on their college transcripts.

How Much Does an Executive MBA Program Cost?

Executive MBA program prices vary by school and sometimes eclipse the price of a traditional MBA program. Many MBA programs run full time, however, and executive MBA programs usually allow professionals to continue working without losing wages.

The percentage of students who paid for their own executive MBA program was 56.2% in 2022, according to the Executive MBA Council's 2022 Membership Program Survey. Students who received a full sponsorship to pay for their program increased from 15.2% in 2021 to 16.4% in 2022, according to that survey.

Nearly 61% of executive MBA programs offer scholarships or fellowships, according to the Executive MBA Council Survey, and 31% of students received a scholarship or fellowship as of 2022.

Average Cost of MBA Programs by Format
Degree Format Average Annual Cost
Full-time, in-person MBA $43,419
Executive MBA $41,441*
Online, full-time MBA $28,545
Part-time MBA $16,874
Online, part-time MBA $14,548

* The average total cost of an executive MBA program was $82,883, according to the Executive MBA Council. Programs typically take two years to complete, but some programs offer accelerated formats that take less time.

Sources: Executive MBA Council,BestColleges

What to Expect From an Executive MBA Program: Courses and Curriculum

The pandemic has rapidly accelerated distance learning in executive MBA programs, according to the Executive MBA Council survey.

Whereas just 55% of the Executive MBA Council's participating member programs incorporated distance learning into their curricula in 2019, that figure rose dramatically to 86% by 2022.

"EMBA programs continue to adapt to the changing needs of working professionals," Desiderio, the Executive MBA Council's executive director, said in a release. "Much of that change comes from applying technology that allowed students to continue their education in the program during the pandemic in new ways that help enhance the in-person learning experience."

In addition to a flexible but intensive format, the Executive MBA Council reported that 89.8% of executive MBA programs offered executive coaching in 2022 — an increase from 88.1% in 2021.

Typical Executive MBA Core Courses

  • Accounting and Statistics
  • Economics
  • Leadership and Ethics
  • Strategy and Decision-Making
  • Consulting
  • Operations Management
  • Marketing
  • Capstone Project

Sources: Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley

Why Get an Executive MBA?

Executive MBA programs may lead to a sizable return on investment, based on the Executive MBA Council's surveys of graduates. Desiderio said graduates received a more than 17% increase in compensation after completing executive MBA programs based on the Executive MBA Council's 2022 exit survey.

Earning an executive MBA is often seen as a way to advance on one's current career track and pursue leadership positions, according to the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, but it can also open up opportunities for a career change.

But an executive MBA's return on investment goes beyond just money and new career prospects. Desiderio noted that the close-knit cohorts and intensive training can lead to a host of networking and skill-building opportunities.

Desiderio said that, during a 2017 partnership with LinkedIn, the Executive MBA Council found that executive MBA students listed business acumen, leadership skills, and networking higher than salary when deciding whether to enroll in an executive MBA program.

"You're hoping for some sort of return, but that's not what's driving most of these executive MBA students to go back to school," Desiderio said.

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