Until a few months ago, Brian Keegan had a commute that would make most business students cringe. Every other Thursday, Keegan, 32, boarded a plane in Nashville as part of a four-hour trip to Chicago, where he attended an executive MBA program at the University of Chicago. Two days and hours of intense classwork later, he flew home.
Why the long haul? Keegan wanted a B-school program with an emphasis on quantitative skills to help him better understand the financial aspects of his business, which prints and packages DVDs, and he was prepared to go just about anywhere to find it. "The commute was irrelevant," he says. "Chicago stood out for me on a lot of levels academically."
Keegan is among a growing number of executives willing to go the distance -- literally -- in choosing a program based on content rather than convenience. This is especially true for the entrepreneurs, career switchers, and small-business owners like Keegan who increasingly are seeking out executive MBAs. They typically have more flexible schedules and greater incentive to travel than classmates whose companies foot the bill, which can easily top $100,000.
But even company-funded students are getting into the long-distance act. Eileen Moore's employer, Harrah's Entertainment (HET ), agreed to reimburse her fully for EMBA tuition at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, even though the biweekly 10-hour round-trip commute between Las Vegas and Chicago would cut into her work schedule.
With top EMBA programs increasingly marketing themselves to a national applicant pool, the long commute is becoming a fact of life for many students. According to BusinessWeek surveys, one out of five students traveled more than 150 miles to EMBA programs this year, up 5% since 2001.
For the programs, this has led to more qualified and diverse student bodies. Still, long commutes bring a host of potential problems for students and schools alike. A cross-country commute is not only physically grueling for students, it can add tens of thousands of dollars in costs that are usually not covered by companies.
To appeal to out-of-towners, some programs have opted for longer, less frequent classes. But that makes it harder for students to retain material from one class to the next and lessens their participation in the networking and social events that are a big part of the EMBA's appeal.
And when a large portion of the class must book flights and find weekend lodging, how well a school manages those logistics becomes almost as critical as the strength of its academics in attracting new students. Kellogg, for example, now offers EMBA students centralized housing and gourmet meals prepared by an award-winning chef. "[An EMBA] is an enormous investment," says Kellogg EMBA Director Julie Cisek Jones. "Students are looking for schools that take this seriously."
Knowing that many students will balk at a long commute, many schools have opted to bring the school to them. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Kellogg, and the University of Chicago, among others, EMBA programs have formed partnerships with other institutions in the U.S. and abroad or opened satellite campuses to appeal to a geographically diverse audience.
At Wharton, which opened a San Francisco campus in 2001, the gambit worked: Combined applications to its programs have climbed, with no decline in average GMAT scores or years of work experience among the student body. "The idea is to be a national program," says Wharton program director Howard Kaufold. "Anybody in North America who wants a great MBA will think of us and decide which [campus] is more convenient."
For busy mid-career execs, top EMBA programs remain a worthwhile investment -- whether they're at outposts such as Wharton West or distant home campuses. Apparently, today's jet-setting executives are willing to spend a lot of time and money getting a leg up in their careers, even if they have to endure a 10-hour commute to do so.
By Lindsey Gerdes in New York