Wharton’s MBA Goes Online, Launching A $214,800 Global EMBA

The Wharton School is the first big-five B-school to launch a synchronous online MBA program

Last October, a survey of more than 80 business school deans found that an overwhelming majority, 89%, believed that a top-five program would offer an online MBA within the next two years. Today (August 16), that forecast came true as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School became the first to break the ice, announcing the launch of its new Global MBA Program for Executives.

The 22-month program will be the most expensive online degree in the world. The total cost of the Global EMBA will be the same as the school’s in-person Philadelphia and San Francisco cohorts at $214,800, even though students will get far less of the housing and food provided by Wharton in their more traditional EMBA formats because three-quarters of learning will be online. At the announced tuition rates, the first cohort alone would bring an additional $15 million in revenue to Wharton in what is generally one of the most profitable degree programs offered by a business school. Moreover, during the pandemic, Wharton full-time MBAs were among the most vocal in seeking tuition refunds when classes went online.

The school expects to enroll an inaugural class of between 60 and 70 students, which would bring its total EMBA cohort to about 300 students across all three programs, compared to roughly 860 for the full-time MBA. But Wharton plans to hopes that initial cohort into slightly under 100 students in the short term and is leaving open the possibility of adding a second cohort over the long-term.

The new degree program will begin in May 2023, and students will complete three-fourths of the program in online synchronous sessions with Wharton professors. Overall, 75% of the new program will be delivered in live virtual sessions. Instruction will be scheduled in early mornings or late evenings, aligned to Eastern time, to facilitate working executives from multiple time zones.

The other 25% of the program will include five residential weeks. The blended online/in-person format will open up the Wharton MBA to executives from Asia, North America, Latin America, and Europe, according to the school.

EXTENDING THE REACH OF WHARTON ‘TO EVEN MORE LEADERS’

Erika James, dean of The Wharton School

While the new program represents Wharton’s first-ever online degree program as well as its first global cohort for its EMBA program, the school is a late comer to what is already a highly cluttered market with more than 350 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone. The school, however, is counting on its elite brand reputation to cut through that clutter.

“The evolution of the Wharton executive MBA is a reflection of our entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to innovation in educational pedagogy,” says Erika James, dean of the Wharton School, in a statement.

“The past two and a half years have proven that high-quality academic programs can successfully extend beyond the traditional in-person classroom experience. By coupling best-in-class virtual instruction with meaningful residential learning opportunities, we can extend the reach of a Wharton MBA education to even more leaders who are poised to grow economies and transform industries across the globe.”

A BIG-FIVE BREAKS THE ONLINE BARRIER

It’s almost old news now that the pandemic hastened the move online for major MBA programs. In the 2020-2021 academic year, more than 45,000 students were enrolled in online options in the U.S., compared to 43,700 in full-time programs, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Meanwhile, big brand business schools Berkeley Haas and NYU Stern tiptoed into the online market for the first time this year.

But all eyes were on the top five programs – Stanford GSB, Chicago Booth, Wharton, Harvard and Northwestern Kellogg – to see if and when they’d enter the online market. While Wharton’s new Global EMBA isn’t strictly online in that it won’t be asynchronous, it is a major announcement for one of the premier business schools in the world.

“I’m not totally comfortable calling it an online degree, because that has this connotation of sitting in bed with your laptop watching videos. Here, 100% of the class time will be with one of our professors, and some of it will be in person,” Brian Bushee, Wharton’s senior vice dean of teaching and learning, tells Poets&Quants.

“We don’t want to lose the fact that there is this requirement to get together five or six times during the two years in the program. Then the rest of the time, you’re online, but you’re also online synchronously with the other students and with professors.”

A WHARTON MBA ACCESSIBLE TO MORE STUDENTS

Live virtual classes will be presented every other week on Thursday evenings as well as Friday and Saturday mornings. In-person requirements include five week-long residencies over the course of the program, including at the Philadelphia and San Francisco campuses as well as international locations. The round 1 application deadline is October 12 while the Round 2 deadline is January 18.

“The new Global Executive MBA cohort is 25% in-person, 75% live online with professors but 100% a Wharton MBA,” Bushee says.

Poets&Quants spoke with Bushee about the new Global EMBA in more detail. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

What is the purpose behind the new Global MBA Program for Executives, and why the need to offer it 75% online?

What we realized during the pandemic was we could both deliver classes synchronously online at a high level, and that there were a lot of high potential executives that would be interested in an MBA except for the requirement of coming to a campus every two weeks. So, we put together a committee to look at all the online options we can consider. The thought was that there are these executives who, because of their job requirements or their family requirements or resource constraints, would want to get an MBA but they just can’t make the in-person commitment. We felt like we could reach that audience with this blended approach where we really wanted to have at least five of these residential weeks so that they got to bond together in person, but then the rest of the program we would deliver synchronously online with our professors.

What did the pandemic teach you about Wharton’s ability to deliver its premier content in a live, online format?

Brian Bushee

One of the things we found in our internal survey of students is that the students that tended to rate the online experiences and the features of online classes higher were students with families, female students, and non-native English speakers. Part of it is there’s a different way of participating in class through an online setting than in person: Things like chat and easy polling help you actually broaden the participation. Having some asynchronous video to help prepare for class but then also providing recordings of the session later, really helps people with families and people that are non-native English speakers because you can go back and sort of review the course whereas in person, if you miss it for five minutes, it’s hard to get back. Those are groups historically that we have trouble reaching with our existing weekend programs in Philadelphia and San Francisco, again, because of the commitment of coming to campus every other weekend for two years.

Right. Previous reporting has revealed that some schools that are offering online options are finding more mothers and females who can participate.

Yes, it came out in the data as females, but I think anybody with families because one of the things I experienced teaching was there would be guys with babies on their laps during class who would ask permission to turn off the camera when they needed to change a diaper. Especially when you look at where a lot of these executives are in their ages, they are in a place where they’re starting families or they have young children. I think a barrier to some of these people going back and getting an MBA is the commitment of being away from your family for such a period of time, right? So it’s almost like the audience we’re going after are people that would not normally get an MBA if it had this significant in-person requirement, but they will with this ability to take advantage of more time together online.

Is Wharton looking at other degree options with either a similar format or even more asynchronous options for people?

The committee that looked at all the options decided, at this point, we’re still not ready or we don’t think it makes sense to offer, like, a one-year master’s online. We’re not sure what the return on investment is there yet for those kinds of degrees compared to what the students can get out of an MBA degree.

We have also, through our executive education program, certificates and shorter programs that are delivered online. But, we didn’t see the niche yet for us to do a shorter and more specific Master’s in an online format. We might someday, but not at this point. This is really more of an extension of our existing Executive MBA Program where we’re bringing in an additional cohort of students as opposed to doing some kind of new online degree.

The price for Wharton’s two existing EMBA programs at San Francisco and Philadelphia is $214,800. Is that going to be the same price point for the new Global EMBA?

Yes. We’re pricing it the same because it’s the same degree — same coursework, same faculty, same powerful alumni network. It’s not a discounted option. We want to make sure we rise to the occasion to deliver the full value, and that these students in the global cohort get just as good of an experience as the students in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

There’s been for a while now this speculation on when one of the big five programs — Wharton, Stanford, Chicago, Kellogg, and Harvard — would break into some kind of online MBA offering, even through this kind of virtual live format. Do you have any thoughts on whether this is a first of what’s inevitably going to come?

We always saw this as an alternative way to deliver our existing MBA for Executives. So I would expect that the other big five programs that have MBA for executive programs, this might be a natural extension. But for the schools that don’t have that, it is sort of a big leap to go from a fully in-person, traditional two-year MBA to something that’s like what we’re doing.

Besides the delivery method and more international options for the cohort, are there any other differences between the Global EMBA and the San Francisco and Philadelphia programs?

We’re still working out ways to provide the kind of informal networking that happens before and after class when you’re in person in Philly in San Francisco. It’s obviously a little more tricky when you’re only together for five blocks and the rest of the time you’re dispersed. Part of it is we want to see where the students tend to land. We are shooting for as dispersed as possible, but if we have nodes of 10 or 15 students in, you know, East Asia or India or Europe, then we can look at ways where we can actually provide some interactions for those small nodes together, in addition to using some of the other types of online informal interaction formats that are out there.

What’s the target cohort size?

We also are building a new classroom that will basically have individual monitors, there’ll be a camera and microphone under their monitor, so when they’re looking at it, it feels more like the classroom. In this new classroom, we have 96 screens so that is the largest we’re gonna go with the cohort. We’re looking for probably 60 to 70 in the first year, growing to 96, and then obviously, if this works well, adding a second cohort

Does Wharton have any other online-adjacent news announcements coming down the pike?

You know, there’s a lot of work that’s gone into it and a lot of work out of us, and I think that’s why you’re not going to see another splashy news announcement of some new online thing, because we really want to get this right. It’s going to take a lot of time and resources and attention to get this launched, get through the first cohort, make some revisions if we need to make them.

How long has this been in the works?

The idea of doing this really started in fall of 2020 as we started to get some survey data from our students and from our faculty on how the experience was going. We also had people reach out to us and say, “Hey, I’d be interested in joining the San Francisco cohort if it’s online for the next two years.” So we started to see that there was this latent demand that when people thought the program might be online for significant amount of time, that it was actually something they would consider doing. Getting some of these inquiries, that’s why we decided put together a committee, really look at the survey, look at the market data, and really think about this carefully.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Everybody here is really excited about this. It will bring in a new set of students that we’ve not been able to tap into before, and I think that’s going to be great for existing students, it’ll be great for our alumni, and it’s going to be great for faculty, just to get this exposure to this new set of Executive MBA candidates.

The Global EMBA application is open and available here.

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