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What's the Difference Between an MBA and an Executive MBA?

20 Jul
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MBA and EMBA programs take distinct approaches to graduate business education. MBAs accommodate professionals of all backgrounds who may be starting new careers or seeking a first management position. Designed for students who are further along in their careers and seeking upper management roles, EMBAs focus on high-level leadership competencies. While EMBAs pack developmental content into intense weekend schedules, MBAs offer more flexibility in timing and customization of curriculum. The differences come down to career stage, but both degrees deliver ROI through advanced skills and expanded networks.

Choosing the Right Business Program

If you’ve been exploring your options for a graduate business education, you might find yourself wondering exactly what the difference between an MBA and an executive MBA is. Many business schools offer both of these programs, and each has specific audiences, attributes, and eventual payoffs.

Continue below to read about five important ways in which MBA and executive MBA programs differ, and decide which one is right for you at this point in your professional life.

1. Your Starting Point

The major difference between MBA and executive MBA programs is right in the name: Executive MBAs are intended for later career professionals who have already reached management or leadership positions. As a result, executive MBA students tend to be older than conventional MBA students. The average age for executive MBA candidates is between 32 and 38 years old, whereas the average full-time MBA student is 28 years old when starting the program.1,2

The amount of professional work experience that each type of program expects its applicants to have is also determined by this starting point. Many MBA programs require at least two years of work experience among their admissions requirements to ensure candidates have a strong sense of the professional world and their potential place within it. While executive MBA programs may not feel the need to specify a requirement like this, they will expect their candidates to possess an impressive and varied resume detailing a wealth of professional experience, including in a leadership capacity.

2. Time Required

Conventional MBA programs come in many shapes and sizes, and a number of universities offer a variety of timing options to accommodate the scheduling demands of all potential students. Full-time residential MBA programs represent the most serious time commitment, requiring students to live on or near campus and take a 100% in-person course load, which may require students to step away from their careers to pursue their degrees. Conventional MBAs may also be offered in part-time, evening, flex, or fully online formats to help working professionals fit their studies conveniently into their busy schedules.

Because executive MBA programs are designed for students who hold a significant number of professional responsibilities (and often more personal responsibilities as well, as the advanced starting age of executive MBA students can also mean they often have more settled family lives), they are typically scheduled with as little actual class time as possible. Attendance is generally required at these programs one to two days per week, usually on weekends.

3. The Curriculum

Course content is yet another area in which many differences can be found even among conventional MBA programs. Some business schools offer well-rounded yet inflexible curricula in which all students take the same courses to receive what program organizers believe is the optimal business education. Others, like the Online MBA program at Santa Clara University, believe in a customizable experience in which students may select a concentration in a specialty like finance or data science. Then, they fill out their schedule with elective courses to tailor their education to their own needs and goals.

Conversely, executive MBA programs are usually pitched at a generalist, strategic level in order to help students develop new leadership skills and mindsets to thrive in and advance beyond their current roles. The desired outcome upon completion of an executive MBA program is an upper management position, so the coursework focuses on the development of a managerial skill set that can help professionals excel at the highest level in any industry or company.

4. Career Paths

As you probably know by now, executive MBA students have typically already experienced some level of career success. They may, however, feel like they’ve reached a plateau in their upward trajectory, and they look to an executive MBA program to give them new momentum to advance once again. They see an advanced degree as the essential credential and signifier that could make a difference in their job search for a C-suite role.3

Traditional MBA students, on the other hand, may be at any number of points in their careers and may seek a variety of different professional outcomes from their programs. They may be in their early career and seeking a stepping stone into a management role. Or they may have worked for a time in one industry or functional area and are looking to pivot into something new. The strongest MBA programs are versatile enough to accommodate all of these needs, opening doors to new opportunities for professionals of all backgrounds.

5. The Whole Cost

Like the lifestyles of their namesake business leaders, executive MBA programs can be somewhat pricey. Because there are relatively few in the country and their students are either quite financially secure or funded by their employers, they often include frequent air travel, expensive hotel stays, and networking at high-end restaurants. If you count the costs of these expenses alongside program tuition, the total bill for an executive MBA program can be over $200,000. Many business schools charge for all of these experiences and elements together as an all-inclusive package.

While conventional MBA programs at the most expensive universities in the country can approach this daunting number, there are plenty of opportunities to receive an outstanding business education at a fraction of this cost, many of which include opportunities for financial aid. Explore online programs in particular if the total price tag is a concern for you, as they’ll enable you to save significantly on potential travel and relocation costs.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to remember that your education is an investment in your professional development, and there can be significant returns on that investment. Included in those returns are an increased salary, career mobility, an expanded network, advanced skills, and a whole university’s worth of resources at your disposal. Programs that are proven to generate positive outcomes are where you should narrow your search

Find the Best of All Worlds in SCU’s Online MBA

Santa Clara University's Online MBA program offers unique connections to Silicon Valley and prepares you to thrive in today’s most innovative organizations. Learn more about networking events and career resources that can propel you into your next opportunity.