Deciding Between an MBA and Executive MBA

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 are not familiar with the differences between the degrees, they may be unsure which route to take. What distinguishes an MBA vs. Executive 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, transportation, and much more. Some institutions, including Washington State University, offer both options. Washington State’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online and Online Master of Business Administration programs allow students to choose the course of study that works best for them: an online Executive MBA or MBA degree.

Student Profile

The biggest difference between an MBA and an EMBA lies in the target student body. Dan Scalco, founder of Digitalux, a digital marketing company and SEO agency, explains in his HuffPost article that a standard MBA program is geared primarily toward young, recent college graduates interested in pursuing management jobs.

They may have some job experience, but it is not yet extensive. An Executive MBA 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.

“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 Washington State University in describing the ideal candidate for its EMBA program.

Because EMBA programs target experienced students, the application focus is different than it is for traditional MBA programs. Most EMBA programs assume that candidates have considerable business knowledge and therefore do not 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 and the GMAT is required to demonstrate certain core competencies.

The discrepancy in student experience leads to different learning environments. Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC), explains this distinction between a traditional MBA and an EMBA.

“The classroom discussions sound and feel different,” he notes. “The level of discussion, when it comes to business cases, tends to be at a higher level (in EMBA courses). People just have more real-world experience.” For executives looking to hone their skills, the high-level exchange can provide a welcome opportunity for growth.

Structure and Course Focus

The difference in the student body between EMBA and MBA programs leads to substantial differences in structure and course focus. Investopedia explains that MBA programs are typically a full-time commitment and take 2 years to complete, although students can stretch their studies out to 3 or 4 years if they carry a part-time schedule. The vast majority of students, however, are on a 2-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. Washington State’s MBA program, for instance, offers a general track plus 4 concentrations: marketing, finance, international business, and hospitality management.

Like an MBA, an EMBA generally takes 2 years to complete. However, because the EMBA caters to experienced professionals, often with high-level jobs that they wish to keep, these programs are set up for part-time but intense study. Classes generally take place on evenings and weekends, when busy professionals are most able to attend.

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.

Patrick Sweeney, an MBA holder who serves on a business advisory board, sums up the differences in a recent article. “Practically, the difference is that a full-time MBA is as much about the journey as the destination, whereas an executive MBA is very specifically about meeting a couple of goals, really, in the quickest amount of time,” he explains. Prospective students should choose the track that best meets their inclinations, goals, and life situations.

Paying the Bill

The cost of obtaining either an MBA or an EMBA is substantial. According to Investopedia, students can expect to pay more than $150,000 for an MBA from a top-10 school. The average cost of an EMBA is a bit less, coming in at $82,796 for 2019. However, many programs charge significantly more than the average.

“Among the ranked EMBA programs that were evaluated in the U.S. News 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,” says U.S. News & World Report.

Although the costs are similar, one major difference tips the scale in favor of the EMBA for many students: corporate sponsorship. While MBA students generally foot their own educational bill, many companies pay part or all of the EMBA tuition for their executives.

According to a 2019 survey by EMBAC, just over 15 percent of all EMBA students received full tuition reimbursement from their employers, and another 32 percent received partial financial support. For candidates who qualify, tuition reimbursement is an enormous incentive to consider the EMBA route.

Financial Benefits

If 47 percent of EMBA students are partly or fully reimbursed, of course, that means another 53 percent are paying out of their own pockets for their degree. EMBAC suggests, however, that the cost of an EMBA is amply offset by the financial benefits. A student exit survey in 2019 revealed that EMBA graduates received, on average, a 13.5 percent pay increase (including salary and bonuses combined) between the beginning and end of their EMBA program. In hard numbers, the average bump was an annual increase of nearly $30,000. This type of increase makes paying off educational loans within 2 to 3 years possible—after which graduates can expect to enjoy a lifetime of substantially higher income.

For MBA graduates, the picture is different. According to a recent study, starting salaries for new MBAs range from $48,400 to $96,200, depending on the area of specialty. These numbers can be expected to increase quickly as talented workers gain experience and move up the corporate ladder. Initially, however, the process of paying off educational loans can be more of a challenge for the recent MBA grad than for the EMBA holder.

Summing It Up

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 vs. Executive MBA, candidates can make the best choice for their needs.

About WSU’s Online Executive Master of Business Administration Program and Master of Business Administration Program

Washington State University’s Carson College of Business delivers 2 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 utilized by today’s high-profile business leaders.

WSU’s Online MBA degree program offers several concentrations—marketing, finance, hospitality business management, international business, and general MBA. The EMBA program focuses on developing executive-level strategic expertise. For more information, visit WSU’s Online MBA website or Executive MBA Online website.


Recommended Reading:

Benefits of Flexible Online Learning Environments for Professionals

3 Ways Leadership Experience Makes You a Perfect Candidate for an EMBA

The EMBA Path for Entrepreneurs and Career Changers



Target student body of MBA vs. EMBA – Huffpost

Description of ideal EMBA candidate – Washington State University

Application requirements – Investopedia

Classroom atmosphere – U.S. News & World Report

Structure and course focus – Investopedia

WSU MBA concentrations – WSU

Summary of MBA/EMBA structure and focus differences – U.S. News & World Report

Average cost of MBA – Investopedia

Average cost of EMBA – U.S. News & World Report

Corporate sponsorship – EMBAC

Student exit survey – EMBAC

MBA average starting salaries – Investopedia