Executive MBAs: Great, if you can foot the bill

March 1, 2011: 10:07 AM ET

Graduates of executive MBA programs are a very happy lot. And many finish with higher salaries. What's not to love? The price tag.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- That old cliché, "you get what you pay for," just might ring

University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School earned top honors in this year's ranking of executive MBA programs by Poets&Quants.

true in a new ranking of the best executive MBA programs in the U.S. At the top of the heap is the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, which offers the two programs with the highest MBA price tags in the world. Wharton's West Coast program, based in San Francisco, costs a whopping $172,200, while its executive MBA at Penn's home campus in Philadelphia is priced at $162,300.

Both programs, however, are world-class educational experiences. They have the same tough admissions criteria as Wharton's full-time MBA program, the same academic content and degree requirements, and the same high grading standards.

"Our students are taught by the same Wharton faculty who hold them to the same standards of performance and intellectual rigor," says Anjani Jain, Wharton's vice dean and director of graduate programs.

And what about those sky high costs, some $64,200 more than the tuition and fees for Wharton's regular MBA?

Jain insists the premium is worth it. Once you include room and board for the program's alternating Friday-Saturday sessions, which is included in the fees, Jain says the cost is "actually comparable to that of peer institutions. Many other EMBA programs have substantially fewer contact hours, or don't include room and board in the base tuition."

The other schools at the top aren't exactly bargains, either. Wharton is closely followed in the new ranking by Chicago's Booth School of Business ($142,000 in tuition and fees), Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management ($153,900), Columbia Business School ($148,320), and New York University's Stern School of Business ($144,000).

To find a high-ranked school offering an executive MBA for under six-figures, you have to reach down to no. 9, the University of Texas at Austin, which has an EMBA program for $80,169 -- less than half the cost of either Wharton program (See the full list of the top 50 Executive MBA programs).

The new ranking by Poets&Quants measures the overall reputation of these programs by combining the four latest ratings on EMBA programs from BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and U.S. News & World Report. By blending these rankings into a composite list, the methodology tends to diminish common anomalies in any one rating system. It also takes into account an array of metrics to measure the quality of the programs, from surveys of student satisfaction to income increases attributed to the degree.

Who gets an executive MBA?

These executive versions of the MBA degree, of course, attract an older, more seasoned group of students. Typically, EMBA candidates bring more than a dozen years of work experience and eight years of management experience to a program. Executives often bring their work challenges into the classroom, seeking help from faculty and fellow classmates.

These days, there's a wide of range of people studying for the degree, from doctors and lawyers to politicians and entrepreneurs. Ari Harkov spent the better part of his adult life as an aspiring and professional opera singer, touring and singing in London, Italy, France, and the U.S. He's now at Columbia Business School's EMBA program.

At Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, John Sampson balances his business studies with his full-time job as a brain surgeon at Duke University Medical Center. And Mick Cornett, a second year EMBA student at New York University's Stern School, is commuting from Oklahoma, where he serves as mayor of Oklahoma City.

Top 10 Executive MBA programs in the U.S.

For Harkov, who quit singing opera professionally to go into real estate, the executive version of the MBA was an attractive alternative to a full-time program.

"The idea of taking two years off from work for a full-time program wasn't practical or appealing to me," he says. "Yet pursuing a part-time program meant I would have to sacrifice the camaraderie and networking of a full-time cohort. I found the executive MBA to be the perfect solution in terms of the blend of coursework and networking."

Generally, those who opt to work through graduate school are looking to make a transition into a new career or opportunity.

"Personal growth was the key factor in deciding to pursue an executive MBA," explains Oklahoma City Mayor Cornett. "That, coupled by the fact that I won't be mayor forever. I tend to think that whatever chapter is next, this will lead me to something I can't imagine today."

Happy graduates, (relatively) skinny wallets

Despite the high tuition, studies consistently show that executive MBA graduates are overwhelmingly satisfied. Some 97% of graduating EMBAs say the programs met or exceeded their expectations when it comes to impact on their careers and their organizations, according to a recent exit survey conducted by the Executive MBA Council. A third of the grads won promotions at work, while 44% received additional job responsibilities.

Even though the latest study was conducted in the midst of the most severe recession since the Great Depression, graduating EMBAs last year reported an average 11.4% increase in salary and bonuses, to $142,534 from an average of $127,955 when they started their programs.

"Despite the difficult economy, the data is still very positive," says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council. The council's student exit survey reflects the view of more than 3,674 students from 116 programs.

What's more, executive MBA programs are a fertile place for experimentation. IE Business School in Madrid recently launched a joint venture with Brown University, which does not even have a business school. Brown is the poet in this marriage, with faculty slated to deliver liberal arts courses in topics like medical anthropology and international politics. IE is the quant, carrying the bread-and-butter MBA classes. The upshot: a 15-month EMBA program that will likely be more Einstein and Tolstoy than Welch and Gates.

Wharton now offers a set of new, globally oriented courses in eight different locations around the world, ranging from a healthcare innovation program in Hyderabad, India to one on understanding and marketing to the Chinese consumer in Beijing.

Every June, the executive MBA program at Chicago's Booth School of Business admits 90 mid-to-upper level executives to each of its campuses in Chicago, London and Singapore. All 270 incoming students start the program by spending a week at Chicago's Hyde Park campus.

Then, they return to their home campuses until the following summer, when each cohort spends a week at the other campuses. The objective: to give the execs a true global learning experience.

Those kind of global excursions drive the costs of these programs up. But no one expects the fancy meals, overnight lodging, cruises, and international residencies of many of the premium programs to go away.

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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