Anyone who has considered a full-time MBA program already knows about the ugly economics. Tuition and living expenses can set you back more than a year's salary, and taking two years off adds another two—in all, more than 300 large for a top program.
That's why many managers opt for one of three basic alternatives: an executive MBA program, typically offered on weekends and designed for senior managers; a part-time degree program, designed for mid-level managers and offered in a nights-and-weekends format; and executive education, shorter nondegree courses that in many cases are created for specific corporate clients. BusinessWeek has been ranking executive MBA and executive education programs since the 1990s, and this year we are launching a new ranking of part-time MBA programs as well.
To find out what it takes to create an extraordinary program, we decided to delve deeply into three of our top-ranked schools. In their own unique ways, all are attempting to give part-time students something akin to a full-time MBA experience by being global, hands-on, and academically rigorous.
At the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management—our top part-time MBA program nationally—we discovered a school that challenges students to apply everything they have learned in a final project that takes them well outside their comfort zones. At Harvard Business School, one of the top executive education programs in the open enrollment category, we found an already successful program in the midst of a game-changing overhaul, with a new array of programs targeting every level of the corporate hierarchy. And over at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, our longtime No. 1 executive MBA program, we found a program where the customer is king and teamwork is part of the school's DNA.
This year, UCLA Anderson received a record number of applications for its part-time MBA program—740, up from 452 in 2004. Not only are more people recognizing the benefits of a part-time program, they also expect a more rigorous experience. No longer is it enough to offer evening classes with light workloads taught by whichever professors are willing to cover the night shift. Students are looking for all the trimmings of a full-time MBA program—better networking opportunities, global exposure, and the best professors. Says Gonzalo Freixes, the school's associate dean for Professional MBA Programs: "MBA education has woken up and said, 'Whoa, this is what our population is clamoring for.'"
No part-time program can match the depth and breadth of a full-time MBA, of course, but Anderson has designed its curriculum to be as close to the real deal as possible. Most schools give part-timers up to six years to complete what is traditionally a two-year degree. Students at UCLA's Fully Employed MBA Program take three. Attendees are required to complete two courses a quarter, for a total of 10 core classes and eight electives on top of a six-month-long project. Unlike many programs where students rarely have classes with the same people, Anderson groups students into "cohorts" of 65 that complete all of their core classes together so they can network. "It has been great to have a group to bounce ideas off of," says third-year student VanAn Tranchi, a manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Anderson's part-time program has made several improvements that helped put it at the top of the ranking. One long-standing complaint from part-time students is that they get little in the way of career services. Anderson has made two career counselors available exclusively to its part-time students. The school also added an Executive Career Night that brings 20 companies to campus expressly for its working students. "The companies are very excited about that prospect," says Freixes, because part-timers often have more work experience than their full-time counterparts.
Most schools put a premium on international experience. Anderson believes its Global Access Program is a step above what's out there. Robert F. Foster, who runs it, says other schools offer the "look-see international experience," where students "visit the Toyota factory and write a 10-page paper." At Anderson, students work in groups for six months and develop a business plan for a small business in another country. That involves intense industry research and providing strategic advice for executives.
Tranchi has been working with a family-owned machine manufacturer in Italy. So far the project has involved a trip to Germany for a trade show, weekly 7 a.m. conference calls, and parsing the company's organizational structure for flaws. By the time she makes her presentation to the company's executives in December, Tranchi will have put 500 hours into the project.
She acknowledges the pace is grueling. But as far as UCLA Anderson is concerned, that's what Tranchi and her colleagues asked for. "We have exactly the same expectations whether you're in the full-time or part-time program," says the school's dean, Judy Olian. "We make no excuses."
For decades, Harvard Business School was the king of executive education. Particularly popular in management circles was HBS's noncredit "open enrollment" program. If a manager needed a quick refresher on a single, focused topic in, say, ethics, HBS was the first choice. And if an executive needed more than a crash course, the school offered a longer, more comprehensive option focused on management development and aimed at mid- to high-level employees without MBAs. The format served the school well for half a century.
But the B-school began to hear rumblings from corporate clients about what they deemed serious flaws in the program's design. First, the 8 to 12 weeks participants spent on campus was too long for them to be away from their jobs. Second, the school didn't attract enough applicants who were on the corporate fast track—the kind of people who would make good networking and brainstorming candidates. "There was a gap in what we were offering," says W. Earl Sasser, a veteran HBS management professor. So Sasser and his team rebuilt the program.
The result is called the Program for Leadership Development (PLD). It was designed to provide the best HBS has to offer—top professors, lots of case studies, and plenty of networking opportunities—without being too onerous for full-time employees.
For starters, the school toughened admissions criteria to ensure that classes include a range of talented and experienced people. Now attendees have as much as 15 years' working experience and many already hold MBAs.
Then Sasser & Co. expanded the length of the program, from 12 weeks to six months, while minimizing time on campus. Instead of three months in the classroom, PLD participants spend a pair of two-week sessions in Cambridge. Of course, reducing the amount of time spent on campus means the classroom intensity goes up several orders of magnitude. In their first two weeks on campus, PLD students cover 19 case studies. "We give the MBAs four times as long to cover the same amount of material," says Das Narayandas, the program's co-chief. "It's like trying to drink from a fire hose." To make the load more manageable, the school has designed the curriculum so each professor's teaching builds on classes that came before.
Before coming to campus, participants complete Web-based tutorials to develop basic skills in areas like accounting and finance. After their first two weeks on campus, they return home and engage in an intense business simulation that unfolds over six weeks. Each team of six or seven students launches a virtual company in one industry. The teams compete against each other for market share and revenue, and are asked to analyze all aspects of the business, from marketing and accounting to strategy and product assortment—all topics covered in their studies. Each of the six weeks represents one year in the company's life. After each week, the group must decide how their company will proceed into the next year and so on.
HBS says its new program has much more in common with full-time MBA programs than with anything currently bearing the "executive education" label, both in design and class makeup. The school has put increasing emphasis on networking. While on campus for their two weeks, students stay in small, single dorm rooms that are linked by a common den-like gathering space to encourage socialization and teamwork. As a result, the school says, participants build relationships typically found in full-time MBA programs, bouncing around ideas and concepts, and carrying their discussions off-campus.
J. Patrick Bewley, who works full-time at a small San Ramon (Calif.) marketing firm, says he has been putting in 18-hour days since starting the program in mid-October. "I learn as much from my classmates as I do the professors," he says. A telling statement, since the program has mustered some of Harvard's top professors, among them Robert Kaplan and Clay Christensen. "The Harvard program was everything I was looking for," says Bewley, 32.
Executive MBA programs have the daunting task of giving seasoned managers the extra oomph required to become CEO material. But teaching people how to become an effective leader isn't accomplished simply with a lineup of relevant courses. It comes from creating an atmosphere where executives can interact with each other and step in and out of leadership roles in a safe learning environment.
The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has attempted to deliver the kind of learning atmosphere where leadership isn't simply taught in the classroom; it's woven—through group work and the premium placed on networking—into every aspect of the curriculum. "This whole idea of collaboration and cooperation," says Dean Dipak Jain, "is what made us what we are today."
While many EMBA programs flaunt their emphasis on teamwork, few schools get students working together quite the way Kellogg does. Students are divided into groups of six that stick together and work on projects for two years—uncommon at most schools. As a result, participants grow extremely close, learning each others strengths and weaknesses, and growing comfortable sharing anecdotes from their working lives.
To avoid making the experience too insular, Kellogg brings in students from partner schools in Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, Toronto, and the Latin America program in Miami. For one week, these executives take classes and work on group projects with students, giving them international exposure. They then have a chance to reconnect by taking week-long electives at partner schools—a new addition to the program. Microsoft manager Bryan Trussel says he reached beyond his limited Seattle tech circle, thanks to the emphasis on networking. "The peer group is a huge part of the experience," he says.
Thanks to a reputation for producing strong leaders, Kellogg attracts seasoned executives. Students average 12 years of management experience, vs. 9 years for the top 25 programs overall. And these people often provide telling anecdotes that the professors can't hope to duplicate. During a recent session of professor Edward Zajac's Strategic Alliances course, the professor raised the topic of small companies playing up their relationships with larger firms. One Intel manager raised his hand to candidly share: "We don't allow companies to say they do business with us unless we get something in return."
When students are on-campus—every other weekend and during live-in weeks—Kellogg takes extreme measures to foster a sense of community. Bedrooms, while stocked with towels and toiletries, have no TVs, so students "don't just scurry back to their rooms," says Program Director Bernadette Birt. Instead, a downstairs bar opens every evening at six. The 15-minute coffee breaks students have between lectures are scheduled simultaneously for all classes so they can socialize with as many executives as possible. "They build both a business network and a social network," says Birt of the EMBA students. "We try and set up everything around that mentality."
And while most top EMBA programs give their students a place to stay and three square meals a day, the school has gone out of its way to make life easy for busy people. Books are pre-bought; there's on-site dry cleaning; break rooms are laid out with finger foods all day; and the salad bar is upscale. Say Birt: "They get here and they can focus on being students."