The best online executive MBA programs of 2021

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For aspiring business owners, high-level managers and entrepreneurs, the MBA remains the gold standard among college degrees. However, students who already have business experience may not need to sit through the basics. Executive MBAs are specialized MBA programs for business professionals that dive deeper into specific business topics. Many of these are offered online, allowing students the flexibility to pursue their degree while continuing work.

Top 5 online executive MBA programs of 2021

What is an executive MBA?

An executive MBA is a degree program that provides specialized coursework for seasoned professionals looking to work around their full-time job. An executive MBA can teach finance, management, entrepreneurship and more, but the classroom setting tends to be more focused and demanding than that of a regular MBA. Executive MBAs typically offer part-time enrollment, with many functioning entirely online.

Is an executive MBA worth it?

An executive MBA is worth it if it opens up more interesting and more lucrative career opportunities. Graduates with an executive MBA do have a high earning potential; PayScale lists the average salary for executive MBA graduates as almost $120,000, compared to just over $90,000 for people with a broad MBA degree.

What can I expect from an online executive MBA program?

Executive MBA candidates tend to be older than traditional graduate students and usually have at least three years of management experience. Executive MBAs enable professionals with requisite knowledge of basic concepts to skip foundational courses and build specialized skills in a concentration.

Most online executive MBAs include a mix of core and elective requirements. Since the typical executive MBA candidate works full time, scheduling is typically flexible, although students may be required to attend short campus intensives or occasional residencies in person.

Executive MBA program courses

When you enroll in an online executive MBA program, you’ll likely need to take a standard set of courses. While the specifics of each course will vary by institution, the types of courses are largely the same program to program:

  • Financial accounting: Training in financial accounting is typically a core requirement of a graduate-level business administration program. Generally, this course trains students to understand, interpret and prepare financial statements.
  • Data analysis: This course helps professionals hone their critical thinking and acute analytical skills specific to marketing and consumer data. Topics include statistical and regression analysis, diagnostic checking, model formation and testing techniques.
  • Operations management: This course reiterates the key responsibilities required of service and manufacturing industry managers and enables seasoned managers to enhance their project management, supply chain management and process analysis skills.
  • Globalization: Core coursework in globalization explores macroeconomics, decision making and confident leadership in adaptive international commerce scenarios.
  • Corporate strategy: Most corporate strategy courses explore the concept and implementation of corporate strategy in a competitive context, preparing students to set and achieve benchmarks of success and exceed professional goals.

What can I do with an executive MBA degree?

The best executive MBAs enable working professionals to advance their career to top leadership positions. Executive MBAs may enter the program with years of management experience in fields like sales, technology or marketing and qualify for careers as chief executives of global corporations upon graduation.

Graduates of an executive MBA often pursue elevated corporate careers, including:

  • Chief executive officer (CEO): Also called executive directors, presidents or managing directors, CEOs direct all aspects of a company. They supervise department-heads and may report to a board of directors regarding daily and long-term operations, company policy and compliance.
  • Chief financial officer (CFO): CFOs are responsible for making all decisions regarding a company’s business capital, including when and where to make investments, reporting gains and losses and balancing debt, equity and internal spending.
  • Director of operations: Directors of operations oversee the daily functions of a business or organization. In the manufacturing and service industries, this position may include specialized skills like compliance, transportation regulations and supply chain management.
  • Marketing director: Marketing directors fill a specialized role in executive leadership, overseeing a company’s marketing teams, producing advertising materials and developing a brand identity.
  • Vice president of global operations: VPs work directly under the president or CEO to help direct and oversee the general operations of a business or organization. A VP traditionally requires advanced soft skills like communication, leadership and critical thinking or expertise in international regulations, negotiation and e-commerce.

Best online executive MBA programs of 2021


Best online executive MBA program for flexible admission requirements

California State University, San Bernadino

CSUSB’s online MBA for executives emphasizes “conceptual knowledge and practical skills,” catering to business professionals with at least two years of leadership experience. The program divides the curriculum into five main categories: boot camp, foundation courses, essential core courses, elective courses and a culminating experience.

School status Public
Tuition $36,000 total
Accreditation AACSB
Exam requirements N/A

Key benefits

  • Flexible admission requirements: Unlike many online MBA programs, CSUSB does not require students to take the GMAT or the GRE. The biggest qualification requirement is that students have two years of work experience in a management or leadership role.
  • Referral program: The online executive MBA features a unique referral program to cut down on tuition. Current students can save 10 percent on course fees for each colleague who enrolls, and prospective students can save 10 percent on course fees by joining the program with a colleague.
  • Relatively low program cost: Compared with other top online programs, CSUSB’s course has a low base cost of $36,000 for the 18-month program.

Key drawbacks

  • Minimal concentrated study: In lieu of traditional concentrations, the online executive MBA at CSUSB incorporates specialized study in areas like accounting, finance or marketing into a “boot camp” module, which must be completed before the second quarter. Otherwise, the program layout leaves room for only one elective course.
  • Inflexible course completion time: Executive MBA students who wish to take more than one course per semester to graduate faster must submit a written reason for exception, which must be approved by the MBA director. Other programs, in contrast, allow students to better pace their studies.


Best online executive MBA program for field study opportunities

Washington State University

WSU offers an online executive MBA to business leaders looking to strengthen their cross-functional leadership, entrepreneurial abilities, global perspective and business planning skills. The program allows students to graduate in as few as 16 months and opens up opportunities for international field study and leadership conferences.

School status Public
Tuition $54,432 total
Accreditation AACSB
Exam requirements GMAT required (waiver available)

Key benefits

  • Leadership conference: Students and alumni of the executive MBA program have the opportunity to attend an annual two-day leadership conference designed for education and networking.
  • Accelerated completion options: WSU designed its online executive MBA for completion in as few as 16 months. By comparison, WSU’s regular online MBA takes 22 to 29 months to complete.
  • Optional international field study: WSU’s online executive MBA offers an optional 10-day international field experience as an elective course, which takes place in a different country each year. Participants enjoy unique professional networking and cultural opportunities.

Key drawbacks

  • Not customizable: The online executive MBA program has a fairly rigid curriculum, with no opportunities to pursue a specialization or choose electives.
  • Work experience required: To enroll in this program, you must have at least five years of management, senior management or executive business experience.


Best online executive MBA program for networking potential

University of Nevada Reno

UNR’s College of Business emphasizes global commerce throughout its programs. Its online executive MBA offers core courses in addition to “breadth” courses, covering subjects like managing organizations in a global economy, personal branding and strategic management for executives. The program is cohort-based, which means that students will progress through the program with the same group of peers.

School status Public
Tuition $30,000 total
Accreditation AACSB
Exam requirements GRE and GMAT accepted (waiver available); minimum GRE score of 150 or GMAT score of 500 recommended

Key benefits

  • Cohort program: UNR uses the cohort model, meaning the same group of students move through the curriculum together for the entire two-year program. This helps to build working relationships and strengthens networking opportunities.
  • Unique breadth courses: While UNR’s program doesn’t offer electives, the breadth courses required for all students are unique. Students will learn about managerial accounting, personal branding and managing organizations in a global economy.
  • Flat tuition rate: Enrollees in the online executive MBA pay a total of $30,000 in tuition, regardless of their state of residence, and students may pay their tuition in installments. UNR is also upfront about additional costs, estimating $2,500 for textbooks for the program.

Key drawbacks

  • Not self-paced: All students must begin the program in the fall semester and move at the same pace as the rest of their cohort to complete the degree. This could be a challenge for students seeking a self-paced program.
  • No specializations: There is no way to customize your executive MBA with UNR; the 12 courses of the program are the same for all students.


Best online executive MBA program for an accelerated program

University of North Carolina Wilmington

UNCW’s online executive MBA seeks to combine online coursework with hands-on experiences. Students can choose between a general degree or a specialization in business analytics, finance, health care management or international business — all of which can give you an edge if there’s a specific industry or career you’re pursuing.

School status Public
Tuition $22,323 to $50,794 total
Accreditation AACSB
Exam requirements GRE and GMAT accepted (waivers available); GMAT score of 500 or equivalent GRE score required

Key benefits

  • Can be completed in 12 months: UNCW packs 42 credits into an accelerated 12-month program, combining seven-week courses in economics, information analysis and management and business analytics with required residencies to develop field experience.
  • Six start dates per year: UNCW offers six annual start dates: two terms each in the fall, spring and summer semesters. The university accepts applications on a rolling basis and may admit students in advance of their preferred start date.
  • MBA specializations: Students can complete a general program or select a specialization in an area such as finance, business analytics or health care management, all specifically designed for the online executive MBA. Each specialization involves a choice of electives in a student’s desired field of expertise.

Key drawbacks

  • Nonresidents pay higher tuition rates: While the online MBA offers reasonable tuition rates among AACSB-accredited programs, students who are not North Carolina residents pay almost $30,000 more than North Carolina residents.
  • Requires campus and international residencies: Students must spend two weekends in residence at UNCW’s Wilmington campus and culminate the degree in a one-week trip abroad for the capstone experience. Learners must pay airfare for the international excursion.


Best online executive MBA program for a customizable degree

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Programs delivered through UH Manoa’s Shidler College of Business emphasize international commerce from a Pacific-Islander perspective. The online executive MBA program offers several management tracks and a number of electives. The program enrolls only every two years, with cohorts starting in the fall semester.

School status Public
Tuition $48,720 total
Accreditation AACSB
Exam requirements GRE and GMAT accepted

Key benefits

  • Financial assistance for Hawaii residents: Local Hawaiian corporate sponsor Saltchuk Resources has provided $140,000 in scholarships for Hawaii residents enrolled in the online executive MBA. UH Manoa offers an additional transportation stipend to students on neighboring islands.
  • Customizable electives: UH Manoa has a health care management track and a travel industry management track for executives looking to customize their experience. Students can also choose from a number of electives, including negotiation and multicultural management.
  • Mentoring opportunities: UH Manoa students have access to the free Executive Mentoring Program. If you sign up for the program, you’ll be paired up with a professional mentor from a Hawaiian business. Topics could include launching a business, enhancing leadership capacity and discovering your personal brand.

Key drawbacks

  • Courses are delivered in real-time: UH Manoa broadcasts its distance courses online in real time, in a virtual classroom that facilitates live interaction amongst the participants. This could be particularly challenging for students attending from a different time zone.
  • Campus attendance is required: Students must attend a five-day intensive residency, as well as occasional Saturday classes throughout the degree. There is a tuition stipend for Hawaii residents, but the in-person elements may be prohibitive for students living outside of Hawaii.

Frequently asked questions about executive MBA programs

What is the difference between an MBA and an executive MBA?

Regular MBAs offer introductory and specialized business curriculum for traditional college students, and they often require only two years of professional work experience. Executive MBAs, on the other hand, target experienced professionals seeking a more in-depth course to enhance their career.

Is an executive MBA hard?

An executive MBA requires as much dedication toward its rigorous curriculum as a traditional MBA; however, executive MBAs tend to offer more flexibility to mid- to late-career students with full-time jobs and family obligations.

Why is an executive MBA more expensive?

Executive MBAs often hire well-known, high-profile (and expensive) experts as instructors. Additionally, schools tend to charge more for executive MBAs because they know that students can continue to earn income or receive employer tuition assistance while completing their degree.

How much money can I make with an executive MBA?

PayScale reports the average salary of executive MBA graduates as almost $120,000. However, this number varies widely by role, location and experience level.

What are the highest-paying jobs with an executive MBA?

An executive MBA prepares graduates for high-paying executive positions. Some of the highest-paying positions available to executive MBA graduates include:

  • Chief executive officer.
  • Chief financial officer.
  • Vice president of operations.
  • Marketing director.
  • Information technology director.
  • Finance director.

Methodology

To find the best online executive MBA programs, we evaluated colleges’ academics, affordability and programming — weighing statistical data like enrollment rate, graduation rate, average net price, percentage of enrolled students taking out federal loans and more. Our top picks are all accredited programs that provide unique features like flexible enrollment and diverse course options.

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Written by
Meg Whitenton
Megan Whitenton worked in web marketing and public relations for major arts organizations and produces dynamic web content for fields including higher education, the visual arts and health care.
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