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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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One of our newsletter readers wrote in asking for advice on professional, or executive MBA programs:

I have read most of your articles on the MBA issue with great interest, but I have found that they don't really address the main question that I have regarding the coveted MBA. Is there still value in an MBA from a "professional" or "evening" program? Most of the opinions that I have read seem to point to the top five business schools and the value that one receives professionally from receiving a degree from one of these schools.

It seems like common sense to me that receiving a degree from the Wharton School of Business will add a new dimension to your career. What about the majority of working professionals who do not and will not have the opportunity to attend one of these institutions? I don't want to throw $15,000 away for a degree that isn't recognized by employers, or continually end up at the bottom of the pile because I couldn't attend a traditional University. If these "professional" programs do add value to one's career, how do you select the best program or institution to get the most out of the MBA experience?

Thanks,
Vault Member

Dear VM:
Thanks for writing. You're right - the world is not solely populated by Harvard and Wharton MBAs. And of course, there are many professionals who can't justify the opportunity cost of taking two years off to go back to school - much less the costs involved in completing a full-time program.

When it comes to Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, you have a multitude of options to choose from. There are online programs, part-time programs, international programs - the list is seemingly endless. When it comes to 'caliber', the program you choose depends on your career goals. If you're most concerned with broadening your skills, you don't necessarily need to go to a top 5 school. If your dream is to eventually join the top brass at a Fortune 100 company, your school's reputation will be more important. ~When considering whether to take a part-time EMBA versus an online course, consider your learning style. Some people know they are motivated enough to learn fairly independently, and others learn better (and are more likely to complete their homework on time) in a classroom situation. Most opponents of online MBA programs point out that a major component of the traditional business school education is the opportunity to learn from other students. Though it is possible to interact with classmates online, many B-school professors argue that real-life interaction just can't be replicated in a chat room or via email. And, of course, lectures and guest speeches on video or broadcast on the Internet can't compare to actually sitting in the same room with a professor or an industry expert.

Many EMBA programs combine classroom and online learning so that students can have both convenience and that crucial interpersonal contact. At Duke, for example, administrators insist that classroom learning be a part of any good MBA program. For each term at the school's "Global Executive MBA" Program, students spend the first two weeks in the classroom, and the following ten weeks learning online.

Another issue when it comes to online courses is the way that courses are broken up. Columbia Business School professor Sunil Gupta points out that "the average attention span [for online learning] is not more than five minutes." Thus, while preparing an online course in marketing for online distance learning startup UNext, Gupta decided to break up his lessons into project-based modules. To solve the problems posed in each module, students are directed to lectures and other materials on the Internet. The problem-solving approach keeps students interested and (hopefully) makes for a more valuable experience than just slapping the content from classroom programs onto a Web page.~Another issue to consider when shopping EMBA programs is the industry you're in. Many schools have unique programs specializing in areas including e-commerce, finance, human resources management, and IT. If you're happy in your industry and want an MBA so that you can move up the ranks, a specialized MBA might be the key to your sucess.

Now the action points. First think about why it is you are considering an MBA in the first place. Then check out BusinessWeek Online's review of Executive MBA Programs. It provides statistics on attendees (from GMAT scores and gender breakdown to average years of work experience and average salaries), overviews of each program's course structure, and estimates on how much time you'll be expected to devote to the program. It also names the top companies that send their own executives to each program. So if you're concerned about how potential employers will view your degree, this is a good resource.

While you go through this process, try to network with people who are in or have already completed EMBA programs - find out what they liked and disliked about each program so that you'll know what to expect.

Good Luck
Nikki Scott
Features Editor
Vault.com

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