Executive MBA vs. MBA: What’s the Difference?

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Candidates hoping to boost or jump-start a business career may consider pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA).

If they’re not familiar with the differences between the degrees, they may be unsure which route to take. What distinguishes an Executive MBA from an MBA? By examining the particulars of each degree, potential students can choose the executive education program that best suits their needs.

Whichever degree a student chooses, online courses can make the process easier by eliminating geographic issues, such as one’s current location, housing, and transportation. Some institutions, including Washington State University (WSU), offer both options. The WSU Executive MBA Online and Online MBA programs allow students to choose the course of study that works best for them.


What Is an Executive MBA vs. an MBA?

To start, let’s answer this question: What is an executive MBA vs. an MBA?

An MBA is an advanced business degree program that prepares students to become business leaders in many areas, such as finance, marketing, human resources, and sales. MBA programs commonly consist of 36 credit hours, spanning foundational business courses including the following:

  • Financial and managerial accounting
  • Strategic planning
  • Business analytics

MBA graduates might go on to pursue leadership careers in business, such as:

  • Marketing manager. In this role, professionals research markets for potential advertising campaigns and sales and develop strategies to promote products.
  • Administrative services manager. In this role, professionals plan and coordinate vital company processes, such as record keeping and facility maintenance.
  • Human resources manager. In this role, professionals oversee organizational processes, such as recruiting, training, retention, and relationship management within a company.

An EMBA, on the other hand, provides students with the knowledge and skills to earn executive-level roles. These programs are designed for midcareer professionals seeking to advance beyond managerial and directorial positions into change-making C-suite positions of leadership and responsibility. EMBA programs commonly consist of 42 credit hours, covering advanced practices and principles in courses such as:

  • Administrative control
  • Information systems analysis
  • International business management

EMBA graduates may go on to pursue careers such as:

  • Chief financial officer (CFO). In this role, professionals preside over the company’s financial operations, including accounting, investments, budgeting, and taxes.
  • CEO In this role, professionals devise and meet the company’s overall strategic direction and goals.
  • Chief operating officer (COO). In this role, professionals work with the CEO to ensure that teams and departments are efficient, productive, and on track toward meeting the company’s goals.

MBA vs. Executive MBA: Comparing and Contrasting Programs

When comparing an MBA and an Executive MBA, it’s important to understand the real-world outcomes of each, as well as the academic structure of the programs.

Student Profile

The biggest difference between an Executive MBA and an MBA lies in the target student body. A standard MBA program is more geared primarily toward young, recent college graduates interested in pursuing management jobs. They may have some job experience, but it isn’t yet extensive.

An EMBA program, on the other hand, is designed for older students who already have a substantial business background but who want to take their knowledge and performance to an executive level.

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“You’ve established yourself as a manager or director, but desire to lead your organization more effectively. And you thirst for strategic expertise beyond what a traditional MBA can offer. You’re looking for an executive edge,” says WSU in describing the ideal candidate for its EMBA program.

Because EMBA programs target experienced students, the application focus is different from that of traditional MBA programs. Most EMBA programs assume that candidates have considerable business knowledge and therefore don’t require a Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) score along with the application. On the other hand, EMBA applicants must submit a resume showing significant business experience. In a traditional MBA application, on-the-job expectations are much less stringent, but the GMAT may be required to demonstrate certain core competencies.

The discrepancy in student experience leads to different learning environments. Classroom discussions in an EMBA program may be at a higher level due to the extensive real-world experience of students, according to the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC). For executives looking to hone their skills, the high-level exchange can provide a welcome opportunity for growth.

Structure and Course Focus

Executive MBA and MBA programs have notable differences in structure and course focus. Investopedia explains that MBA programs typically require a full-time commitment and take two years to complete, although students can stretch their studies out to three or four years if they carry a part-time course load. The vast majority of students, however, are on a two-year track. They take a heavy course load that makes working outside the program prohibitively difficult, so MBA candidates are generally full-time students.

An MBA is designed to give students a general overview of business. Along with required courses covering certain basics, programs may offer different concentrations and electives, so students can gravitate toward their area of greatest interest. The WSU MBA program, for instance, offers a general track along with four concentrations: marketing, finance, international business, and hospitality management.

An EMBA  to complete. However, because the EMBA caters to experienced professionals, who often have high-level jobs that they wish to keep, these programs are set up for part-time but intense study and may be completed in less than two years. Classes are often held evenings and weekends, when busy professionals are most able to attend. The WSU EMBA Online program can be completed in as few as 16 months.

Course offerings in EMBA programs tend to be much more targeted than they are in MBA programs. Few electives are offered, meaning that students are expected to take all or most of a specific slate of classes. Some classes cover the same material presented in an MBA program, but the pace is usually faster. Programs often operate on a cohort model, with students working with the same group of classmates throughout their school experience.


Benefits of an MBA

One of the most substantial benefits of an MBA is the salary. Investopedia reports that according to projections from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the starting salary for new MBA graduates will average $87,966 in 2021—more than 11 percent higher than the average in 2020. Of course, salaries can fluctuate based on each graduate’s experience, specialized skills, and position. As U.S. News & World Report found, MBA graduates who specialize in consulting report an average base salary of $152,470, and those with skills in technology management report an average base salary of $124,289.


Benefits of an Executive MBA

EMBAC suggests that there are also significant financial benefits of an Executive MBA program. A 2020 student exit survey revealed that EMBA graduates received, on average, a 14.1 percent pay increase (including salary and bonuses) between the beginning and end of their EMBA program. In hard numbers, the average bump was an annual increase of nearly $24,000, reaching $193,200 by the end of their program. This type of increase can make paying off educational loans within two to three years possible—after which graduates may expect to enjoy a lifetime of substantially higher income.

Additionally, EMBA graduates said they were given new responsibilities at work thanks to their increased skills in areas such as leadership, critical thinking, and team building. Almost 40 percent also said they received a promotion during the course of their program.


How Much Does an MBA Cost?

When considering an Executive MBA vs. an MBA, prospective students should be aware of the cost of each program. According to Investopedia, students can expect to pay more than $150,000 for an MBA from a top 10 school. Still, how much an MBA costs will depend on the academic institution, specific program, and any scholarships or financial aid available to the student.


How Much Does an Executive MBA Cost?

The average Executive MBA cost may be a bit less than that of an MBA, coming in at $82,883 for 2020, according to EMBAC. However, many programs charge significantly more than the average.

“Among the ranked EMBA programs that were evaluated in the U.S. News & World Report Best Executive MBA Programs rankings, the price of an EMBA often exceeds $100,000 and occasionally—in rare instances, at highly prestigious B-schools—the cost surpasses $200,000.”

Although the costs are similar, one major difference tips the scale in favor of the EMBA for many students: corporate sponsorship. Many companies pay part or all of the EMBA tuition for their executives. However, while MBA students often foot their own educational bill, students in standard MBA programs can also gain corporate sponsorship.

According to a 2020 survey by EMBAC, nearly 15 percent of all EMBA students received full sponsorship for their degree programs. For candidates who qualify, tuition reimbursement is an enormous incentive to consider the EMBA route.

Advance Your Career in Business

Although graduates of both EMBA and MBA programs come away with business degrees, the journey to graduation can be very different. Prospective students must know what they’re looking for and how their qualifications suit the programs. By understanding the differences between an MBA and an Executive MBA, candidates can make the best choice for their needs.

The WSU Carson College of Business delivers two of the top-ranked business programs in the nation. The curricula are designed to equip students with the tactics, knowledge, skills, strategies, and other resources that today’s high-profile business leaders use.

The WSU Online MBA degree program offers several concentrations—marketing, finance, hospitality business management, international business, and general MBA. Meanwhile the EMBA program focuses on developing executive-level strategic expertise, helping students advance to become business leaders and decision-makers. For more information, visit the WSU Online MBA website or Executive MBA Online website.


Recommended Readings

5 Hidden Benefits of Getting an MBA

How the EMBA Program Positively Impacted My IT Career



EMBAC, Executive MBA Council 2020 Survey Results Reveal Compensation Increases and Expanded Responsibilities Among Graduates

EMBAC, The Executive MBA Council’s Annual Member Program 2020 Survey Results Show an Increase in Distance Learning Programs and Gender Diversity

Investopedia, “MBA vs. Executive MBA: What’s the Difference?”

Investopedia, “What Is the Average Salary for an MBA Graduate?”

National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2021 Salary Survey

PayScale, Average Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Salary

PayScale, Average Chief Operation Officer (COO) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Administrative Services and Facilities Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Human Resources Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives

U.S. News & World Report. "Find MBAs That Lead to Employment, High Salaries."

U.S. News & World Report, “What an Executive MBA Is and Reasons to Get One”