Online MBA vs EMBA: How to Choose the Right Course

The boundary between these two previously distinct degree programs is blurring, but they still attract very different types of students with unique aims

Technology adoption in business education has been turbocharged out of necessity due to coronavirus. As campuses in some parts of the world remain locked down, online learning has become the norm across degree programs. That is causing a profound convergence between two previously distinct degree courses: Online MBAs and Executive MBAs.

Online MBAs and EMBAs have always shared similarities, but the boundary between them is becoming increasingly blurred. Both programs teach broadly the same management and leadership skills, but the key difference between them has always been how the content is delivered. Online MBAs are taught mostly virtually, whereas EMBA students learn in person on campus, or through a mixture of online and in-class learning.

However, a growing number of highly ranked EMBA programs have been veering more strongly towards remote teaching due to the pandemic, and many are shelving their coveted international study trips. At the same time, before coronavirus struck, business schools were bringing Online MBA students to their campuses more and more for residential modules that provide vital networking opportunities.

This raises the question of whether Online MBAs and EMBAs could “cannibalize” each other and splinter demand from the same pool of students, or if they are “growing the whole pie” by attracting new and different students to their programs.

Online MBA vs. EMBA: subtle, but important, differences

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in North Carolina runs both a highly ranked EMBA and an Online MBA program. In the EMBA, about 30 percent of the coursework is delivered online so that students can reserve classroom time for deeper group discussion.

Likewise, one of the hallmarks of the online program, perhaps counterintuitively, is the in-person residencies in Chapel Hill where students build stronger connections with classmates, professors and alumni.  Moreover, students have the option to take electives in another one of UNC’s MBA formats, giving them a wider array of course options.

With the mode of study converging, there are still notable differences in the scheduling and cohort size of UNC’s Online MBA and EMBA programs. The EMBA students meet every third weekend on campus with 50 peers who have, on average, 13 years of work experience. In contrast, Online MBA students “meet” weekly for virtual classes in groups limited to 20 students with typically fewer years of professional experience.

Sarah Perez, managing director of MBA programs UNC Kenan-Flagler, has witnessed no signs of cannibalization, though she says some applicants consider both the Online MBA and the EMBA. “Ultimately, students have to decide how they’ll learn best, maximize their outcomes, and which format is most feasible based on their schedule, location, and personal and professional circumstances,” she says.

She adds that, by offering more degree options, the business school can attract a wider range of students: “Because we have both Executive and Online MBA options, we serve more students who want to pursue an MBA while continuing to work full-time.”

Online MBA vs. EMBA: attracting different students

Vlerick Business School in Belgium launched an Online MBA program in 2018, complementing its long-running EMBA course. The content of the two degrees is more or less the same, says Steve Muylle, academic director of the Online MBA, but each program attracts an entirely different type of student.

He says the Online MBA is more flexible, allowing students to fit in study around work and family life, learning “asynchronously” at their own pace over a period of one to five years. The EMBA, on the other hand, is more rigid, with students required to come to campus in Ghent for two full days every three weeks for 18 months.

The price of the EMBA is also slightly higher to account for study trips. However, Online MBA students can pay to join these jaunts if they would like to.

Despite this identity clash, Koen Dewettinck, director of MBA programs at Vlerick, does not believe the Online and EMBA programs will cannibalize each other, as he notes that demand from very different participants has been rising for each degree format.

While the cohorts in the Online MBA and EMBA are similar in terms of age and work experience, Muylle says “the Online MBA appears to attract a higher number of women and also more international students who need flexibility”.

Dewettinck adds that “the courses certainly do complement each other and have really helped each other” in the Covid-19 pandemic. “For instance, with the mass shift to online learning, having the Online MBA helped us tremendously in getting the EMBA online, using the experience we already had,” he says.

Andrew Crisp, a higher education consultant based in the UK, says that how far the convergence between Online and EMBA courses goes depends on the extent of digital adoption once the coronavirus crisis abates. Ultimately, he says the choice will come down to where a prospective student is in their career and what outcomes they are seeking from their degree.

“Those taking an EMBA have often, because of age and experience, been aiming to make a move to the C-suite in a relatively short [amount of time],” he says. “Those taking an Online MBA tend to be earlier in their careers, and while seeking advancement, may not anticipate the C-suite for some time.”

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