How to seek employer support for your Executive MBA

But don’t ignore the range of alternative options available if the corporate sponsorship avenue is blocked

SINCE the financial crisis, there has been a notable decline in those taking corporate sponsorship for their Executive MBA (EMBA) courses. Whereas around a third of a typical cohort would once be self-funded, with the remainder receiving employer support, the situation has now been reversed.

But the number of ambitious executives doing the degree hasn’t waned. They remain drawn to a combination of a sizeable return on investment (for example, the average alumni salary three years after graduation at Columbia/London Business School increased by 85 per cent) and improved career opportunities. Many take an EMBA to accelerate their progression into senior management.

But while employers and employees can both reap the rewards of the prestigious programme, EMBAs do come with a hefty upfront price tag. The Kellogg School of Management/Hong Kong UST course, currently top of the global EMBA rankings, costs $152,625 (£95,200). What’s more, the hidden costs – like travel and extra-curricular activities – will add to the financial burden. Charlotte Mason, who graduated from Insead in 2008, tells me her course was self-funded by draining savings and releasing equity on her home. “I took it as a three-year, self-business plan. But it was a scary decision,” she says. Indeed, researching financing solutions can be a daunting prospect.

So before investing time and energy into the admissions process, potential students should first ask themselves whether the course is right for them. “If you envisage yourself working in a different sector or organisation after the EMBA, it may not be appropriate to ask support from your company,” says Steve Cousins of Cass Business School. Most firms will want a statement reinforcing your dedication to completing the study required, and your commitment to progressing within the company when you graduate. And clarify your expected career progression after the EMBA with your employer – it may help you find the course most appropriate for you.

Some candidates will manage to persuade their employers to sponsor their studies, receiving both time (the Cambridge Judge EMBA, for example, requires students to be away from work for the equivalent of 28 days out of the office over a period of 20 months) and financial, support. But securing company sponsorship is getting tougher. Prospective students will need to provide a well-researched business plan, outlining the investment benefits. And remember, it isn’t about you, it’s about value to the company.

To guide potential students through the sponsorship process, business schools can offer advice, from providing testimonials from previous sponsored candidates and sponsoring employers, to advising on the tax rebate options that may be available. But your first port-of-call should be colleagues who obtained corporate support for their EMBA courses. Talk to them, find out their strategies and approach. And make sure you know your firm’s priorities and long-term goals. “Is it looking to expand globally? Is it exploring new vertical markets? That way, you can establish what will be valued in the coming years,” suggests Lee Weiss of Kaplan Test Prep.

If corporate sponsorship is a dead end, some will seek bank finance. Hina Wadhwa of QS Top MBA says that personal development or student loans are still a viable option, even to older EMBA participants. “Definitely try approaching your local bank,” she says.

And the number of schools offering scholarships or fellowships has risen from 38.8 per cent in 2008 to 47.6 per cent in 2012, according to the Executive MBA Council. The awards vary in amount, and normally take the form of fee remission – with some including contributions towards living expenses. “There are a lot of scholarships out there, but the average EMBA candidate doesn’t really keep this in mind, often thinking they apply to a younger audience,” says Wadhwa. And some schools will allow you to arrange fee payment in instalments – which could reduce the financial burden.

It may also be worth adding public and private grants or bursaries to your financial cocktail. In the UK, the best places to start your research are and your local tax office (to see if you are eligible for any rebates on your income tax).

Finally, a number of schools have loans available through the Prodigy Finance Loan Programme – a scheme which allows alumni to invest in students at business schools around the world. It has lent $36.17m globally to date. But it is also worth remembering that while the more prestigious schools have a highly-regarded brand name, a prestigious network, and the fees to match, there are a number of cost-effective programmes that meet the requirements of smaller budgets without compromising on quality. Wadhwa points to the Ashridge Business School EMBA. It is ranked as one of the top two schools in Britain for executive education, and costs just over £30,000.

Start negotiations with your employer as early as possible: it will give you time to seek alternative funding if necessary.