Executive training ground

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Print this page Tim Loughran

When Old Dominion University began planning its Global Executive MBA program a few years ago, school officials met with senior corporate executives, who promised support. Their companies pledged that they would not only give employees time off to attend classes on the Norfolk campus and travel overseas, but also would pay a large chunk of each student’s $60,000 bill for tuition and fees.

Unfortunately, the “Great Recession” torpedoed training budgets across the region. ODU was forced to reschedule the first day of classes of its new program from this month until at least January 2012.
“Companies that said they would sponsor the program later determined they had to pull back on all discretionary spending,” says Bill Judge, the program’s academic director. “Obviously, starting a $60,000 program in this economy is pretty hard to do.” 

As ODU’s recent experience illustrates, more and more U.S. companies cut financial support for their executive MBA (EMBA) students during the recession. Five years ago, says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the 210-member Executive MBA Council, “most EMBA students were fully sponsored by their employers”; now, “about a third are fully sponsored, another third share the expense with their companies and the rest pay their own way.”

Despite the cutbacks, EMBA programs haven’t lost their value in the development of management talent.  Derided for decades as “night schools” for their use of alternate weekend schedules and distance-learning modules, EMBA programs now have become important midcareer training tools for thousands of businesses, nonprofit groups and government agencies.
In Virginia that group includes corporate heavyweights such as Wal-Mart, Altria, Oracle, Kraft Foods, Target, Wachovia and SunTrust, and nonprofit organizations such as the UNOS Network for Organ
Sharing and the Piedmont Housing Alliance.

“It remains a common misconception that modern executive MBA programs are sort of an ‘MBA light’,” says Charles Jacobina, executive director of Virginia Tech’s EMBA program, which is based in Falls Church. “But it’s perhaps even better than the degree that someone would earn if they had the time to study business and management full time.” 

Evolution of the EMBA
In the United States, the University of Chicago offered the first EMBA program in 1943. Currently, more than 140 universities across the country offer some version of the EMBA. The programs take an average of 20 months to complete, almost always include at least one short module of overseas study and cost an average of $65,000 in tuition and fees, according to the Executive MBA Council.
In Virginia, five universities offer EMBA programs accredited by both the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Executive MBA Council. They include the College of William & Mary (which began its program in 1985), George Mason University (1991), Virginia Commonwealth University (1994), Virginia Tech (2003) and the University of Virginia’s Darden School, which started its program in 2006.
At U.Va., EMBA students meet over the course of three days (Thursday-Saturday) once a month and about 30 percent of the program is conducted via the Internet. By contrast, the state’s other accredited programs have students meet as a group on alternating weekends (Friday-Saturday) and rely very little — if at all — on distance learning.  And with the exception of GMU, which offers two industry-specific EMBAs that appeal to companies located in the Washington region (a Global EMBA and a National Security EMBA), the others offer general training in hands-on business management skills across all major disciplines using real-world case studies.
Admissions requirements vary, but applicants to any of Virginia’s EMBA programs should have an undergraduate degree, a strong score on the GMAT graduate business school exam, six to 10 years of work experience, a full-time job and multiple references from current and previous employers.
Tuition, fees and necessary supplies at VCU’s “Fast Track” EMBA program — rising by about $3,000 annually, according to its director — now total $49,500, the lowest amount in the state. The Darden School EMBA program costs the most, close to $120,000 per student. Students at William & Mary now pay about $80,000, while GMU and Virginia Tech offer EMBAs for roughly $73,000 each.

Midcareer focus
Unlike other MBA programs, which might include students with little or no business experience, EMBA classes are designed to help midcareer students polish and perfect the set of practical, problem-solving skills that each is expected to have accumulated after a decade in the workplace.  Students sharing what they know — with a minimum of nudging from faculty members and administrators — are responsible for mentoring and helping their classmates succeed.
“Regular conversations with classmates from different industries are almost worth an MBA all by itself,” says Bill Miller, executive director of VCU’s “Fast Track” program.
More and more EMBA programs divide their larger classes into small, project management teams, with each member expected to share their technical or management expertise with others in the group — just as they would in a well-run company. To enhance the effectiveness of this format, EMBA admissions officers are always on the lookout for a wide variety of personality types and experience in all sorts of business activities.   
“A more diverse student body is always better,” says Virginia Tech’s Jacobina.  “We create our teams by putting together people with the exact opposite personalities, just as you find every day in the business world, so students get used to the feeling of being outside their natural comfort zones.” 

A look ahead
Companies, of course, would rather not lose valuable managers several days each month to attend EMBA classes. In addition, an increasing number of companies throughout the U.S. are seeking smarter ways to compete more effectively with low-cost global powers like China, India and Brazil. U.Va. and ODU hope their new EMBA programs will address both concerns.
In August, The Darden School expects to launch a new 21-month Global EMBA program that includes eight weeks of international study and will cost an eye-popping $140,000.  Like its current EMBA program, about a third of the course will be taught via the Internet, something companies like because students are able to work their full-time jobs more days per month.
Originally designed to provide training in advanced supply chain management and global logistics for freight and other transportation companies in Hampton Roads, ODU’s new Global EMBA program (as it is currently structured) is being redesigned to provide a broader general management curriculum with a strong international trade focus to local firms selling health-care, environmental remediation and accounting services. Still in place however is a heavy dose of Internet-based distance learning modules and a 12-month calendar, the shortest, dually-accredited EMBA program in the nation. 
“This is what companies told us they wanted,” says ODU’s Bill Judge. “We compressed the same material that is offered over 18-24 months at other universities because our program is designed not for the convenience of faculty members, but for the needs of our students.” 

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