Turbocharging Your Career

As executive MBA students foot more of the bill themselves, they're also demanding more. Which schools deliver?

By the age of 35, Patrick Davenport had an impressive résumé. The former vice-president for corporate finance at GE Capital (GE ) was running his own venture-capital firm that helped fund technology companies such as a component manufacturer that Intel Corp. (INTC ) snapped up for $400 million. And, with a master's degree in finance under his belt, Davenport would seem to have little use for an MBA.

But there were gaps in his knowledge, he says, such as marketing skills and the ability to inspire teamwork. At the same time, Davenport was reluctant to take two years off to attend a full-time MBA program. So instead, he applied to Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management Executive MBA program, figuring he could continue to run his 25 portfolio companies while he studied and attended classes every other weekend. Now, five months after graduation, he's leaving venture capital to start an investment fund in real estate. It's something he knows little about, but he's not worried. "I've got a Kellogg [education as a] foundation for everything I'll do from here on out," says Davenport.

It's that kind of sentiment that propelled Kellogg into the No. 1 spot once again in BusinessWeek's biennial ranking of the best Executive MBA programs. Grads were quick to credit a faculty that balanced academics and high-level work experience -- and knew how to incorporate students' own experience and insight into the curriculum. Just as important, as with most of the top EMBA programs, Northwestern's EMBA faculty includes the top professors in Kellogg's full-time program, not just adjuncts or less-seasoned faculty members.

When EMBA programs got their start 30 years ago, their purpose was clear: to provide corporations with a way to beef up their high-performance execs' finance, marketing, and general-management skills without losing them to full-time MBA programs or other employers. Corporations provided time off from work and footed the bill. The schools were delighted -- the pricey programs were cash cows, and companies, not students, were the real clients. There was also, however, an unspoken assumption that the execs were more concerned with the credential than the content and were willing to earn a lower-calorie MBA.

That picture has changed dramatically. Cost-conscious employers are cutting back, and today, many EMBA students are paying for a big chunk of their tuition themselves. Only 42% of respondents this year were entirely company-sponsored -- a drop from 52% in 2001. And 21% paid for the degree entirely themselves, up from 16% in 2001. That's a substantial sum considering that tuition for the two-year programs can run more than $100,000. The trend shows no sign of slowing, either. Fully 50% of current EMBA students at the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management, for example, are paying 100% of the bill this year. "We've never seen anything like it," says George T. Geis, associate dean and director of the EMBA program at UCLA.

It's no surprise, with students shelling out so much more, that they're also demanding more. They're insisting on quality teaching, rigorous course work, and more services and support in such matters as travel, housing, and scheduling. One big complaint this year: Most schools don't provide adequate career services, given the price-tag.

Schools at the top of the list excel at satisfying many of these new demands. To determine the best Executive MBA programs, BusinessWeek worked with Cambria Consulting Inc. to survey more than 4,000 alumni from the 2003 graduating class, garnering a 65% response rate. We also surveyed 64 EMBA program directors, receiving a 72% response rate. The grads' survey asked about everything from quality of teaching to effectiveness of support staff. Schools with too few responses were disqualified. Program directors were asked to list the 10 schools, excluding their own, that offer the highest-quality programs. The directors' and students' surveys each contributed 50% of the total score. Graduate scores from 2003 counted as two-thirds of the total grad score. The scores from the last survey in 2001 made up the balance. We standardized the scores from both surveys and tallied them for a ranking.

Just behind Kellogg, holding the No. 2 spot, is neighboring University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Chicago graduates raved about the program's international focus -- unusual in a U.S. program -- in which students from the school's Barcelona, Singapore, and Chicago programs meet in each country for a week, in addition to their time in their own program. Dissatisfaction centered around what students perceived as an overconcentration in finance. ("It should be labeled an EMBAF, an executive MBA in finance," gripes one alum.) But most respondents gave the school high marks for an environment that is more collegial and fun than they had expected from a school with such a serious quantitative focus. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School landed at No. 3. Graduates praised its high-level faculty and the power of the Wharton brand, and the directors' poll ranked the school No. 1.

Completing the top five were other familiar names: Duke University Fuqua School of Business' weekend program placed No. 4, with students lauding a rigorous program and nurturing faculty. Students at No. 5, the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, cited top-flight professors.

NEW FOCUS. Still, it hasn't been an easy road for the 2003 EMBA grads. They started their degrees at a time when there were plenty of real-time crises to bring into the classroom. "Soft" topics such as leadership, crisis management, and ethics became hot as the shock of September 11 was followed by sobering corporate misdeeds, while an economy in freefall threatened to take EMBA students' jobs with it -- and often succeeded. Some schools' faculties worked current events and economic news into their lesson plans, a move students say they appreciated.

Now that they're juggling tuition along with full-time jobs, personal lives, and a course load that might include hours of commuting time, EMBAs are ratcheting up more than just their academic expectations. They also want smooth logistics so they can concentrate on school, work, and family rather than plane tickets, meals, and books. EMBA students also prefer to be around high-level classmates who have a string of professional successes already behind them.

They also crave an academic challenge. Students gave the highest marks to the programs that they considered to be the most rigorous. Cornell University, eligible for the EMBA rankings for the first time this year, entered the list at No. 14, with grads praising the school for its intensity even as they said it made for a challenging two years. "It was hard to digest, say, the entire Cost Accounting syllabus into a three-weekend course," says one alum.

Some schools are trying to deliver that rigor in a distinctive package. Duke's Fuqua Global Executive program, which alternates periodic one- and two-week international residencies in Durham and Germany with distance learning, earned kudos from students for its academics and for simulating the global workplace through teleconferences and team projects that spanned different time zones and languages. The combination is working: Duke's Global Executive program comes in at No. 9 -- and unlike other EMBA hybrid programs, the Global Executive program also won praise from EMBA directors.

TURNAROUND. More traditional international programs also continued to impress, as well. Small classes and discovery trips to Shanghai, Dublin, and Silicon Valley helped IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, secure the highest spot in the rankings of any international school, at No. 6. And the University of Chicago's Barcelona program, which uses the same faculty as Chicago's full-time and other EMBA programs, entered the rankings this year for the first time, at No. 22.

Columbia University, a lackluster entrant in 2001 whose grads then claimed the lowest satisfaction level of any of the Top 25 EMBA programs, managed to pull off a turnaround -- at No. 15 in the overall rankings and No. 15 in student satisfaction. The difference this year? Grads say the school responded with more than lip service to the class of 2001's complaints by increasing administrative support. Alums also lauded the program for its roster of high achievers that rallied around classmates who lost friends and family on September 11. One change they fiercely oppose, though: Columbia's move from meeting every Friday to meeting every other Friday and Saturday, a schedule that now resembles that of most other EMBA programs. Grads say the switch makes an EMBA less manageable for students with families.

EMBAs are a breed apart. They identify heavily with their executive-level responsibility and status -- and they value a topflight faculty and student body that reflect those lofty heights. They're also sensitive to criticism that EMBAs earn an "MBA lite" and want to be taught at an even higher and more sophisticated level than their younger, less experienced, full-time counterparts. The schools that address these issues head-on remain the best of the bunch.

By Kate Hazelwood in New York

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.