At some of the world’s top business schools, the average age of incoming full-time students is approximately 27. Many decide to go back to school after realizing that in order to grow their careers in the long term, they need to make drastic changes today—develop new skills, grow their network and gain exposure to potential employers.

Consequently, some quit their jobs and decide to attend business school full-time. Others demand the same benefits of the MBA experience, except they wish to diminish their cost by attending business school while they continue to work.

I cannot tell you which of these options is best for your unique situation. Each program format has its own pluses and minuses. Each of us has different desires and goals. And those may be met with a different mix of ‘flavors.’ There is no cookie cutter approach to finding out which program is best for you. You can only find out by doing your homework diligently.

I also happened to be 27 when I first set foot at Duke. I had a spent the summer of 2013 at the University of Chicago Booth attending a pre-MBA program called Summer Business Scholars. At the end of this program I knew, for sure, that I wanted to go back to school full-time. I was willing to sacrifice being out of the work force for two years to help set future me on the right path to success. But I also knew that based on my background and having been part of the labor force a bit longer than most people my age, that perhaps it made most sense from a cost-benefit stand point to go back to school part-time.

Valid Concerns About Part-Time MBA Programs

The ‘healthy-skeptical’ part of me knew that not all part-time programs are created equal, and I was scared to even take a deep look at what this type of program could offer. I was about to make my first big business decision by trying to best allocate the $100,000-plus that I would receive as a loan. I didn’t forget that I was applying to business school and not, let’s say, cooking school. So as a businessperson, I had to look into this option. I did my research and found that most part-time programs suffer from the following:

  1. Because of the class format (held on week nights or weekends), students are not able to interact with classmates as much as full-time students. So it becomes more difficult to build long lasting relationships.
  2. Even if the opportunities to interact were present, not all students have the intention to focus their valuable time on getting to know their classmates on a deeper level. In short, they are just there to get a degree. That’s it.
  3. In a part-time program, it seems more difficult to switch career paths. Most employers’ presentations are only geared towards full-time students. The career centers seem to focus on full-time students. Part-time students don’t get as much attention as they should.
6 executive MBA students standing around a blackjack table
Casino night was one of the social events during Term 1 that provided a fun way to bond with classmates

Undervalued Benefits of Executive MBA Programs

I also found out that the ‘right’ part-time program—or perhaps better described as an Executive MBA or an MBA program for working professionals—could be a fantastic ‘undervalued’ opportunity. And trust me, as a businessperson I’m all about finding undervalued opportunities. And you should too. Here is what I liked about spotting the right one:

  1. From a cost-benefit stand point, and given my accumulated working experience plus my long-term aspirations, it made the most logical sense. I get to keep my job, my source of income, while I get to obtain a stellar education. I don’t have to pause the world around me to continue to move forward. Tell me how you can beat that, and I’m all ears.
  2. By all means, it takes lots of effort and a strong support network to have to juggle many things at once and do it well. But ask yourself—which program may prepare you the best for life and your career? One where you may only focus on your studies and relationships? Or the other where you may be forced to develop skills to juggle very important things at the same time, such as work and school on one hand, and personal life and family on the other? Which program do you think will prepare you best today for what you’ll be doing tomorrow? Think about that very seriously.
  3. I would get to apply what I learn in the classroom back at work right away. I don’t have to wait until the summer or when I’m done with my MBA to finally start applying my intellectual knowledge to something productive. This is both beneficial to my employer and beneficial to myself.
  4. The level of experience that certain executive MBA programs attract is stellar. Students are seasoned professionals. Also, most students have had more time to accumulate capital. If you are an entrepreneur and wish to start a business during your MBA, you are going to be surrounded by people who have more capital available and might be ready to dispose of it intelligently. At Duke, my experience has been that we are not only looking at each other as Weekend Executive MBA (WEMBA) classmates or friends; we are looking at each other as potential business partners.
  5. When looking at my classmates, I can ask myself a very valid question. What are these individuals giving up by spending a weekend in Durham, hitting the books hard and getting to know someone like me at a deeper level? The answer came easy. Most are giving up time away from their families, spouses and kids. They are giving up time away from work. And time is money. Yet, they still chose to come to Durham to be in class with me. So if that’s the case, then in most scenarios it’s fair to assume that these students are going to be fully engaged and wanting to maximize every dollar spent and every minute away from their families.
  6. Lastly, I didn’t think it would be fair to my family and those that depended on me to quit my job simply because I wanted to benefit from a full-time MBA. The present cost would have been much greater than the future benefit. At least in my book, I didn’t think going back full-time was appropriate.

So What Does it Really Come Down To?

8 executive MBA classmates
Dinner with my classmates

I believe it really comes down to finding the ‘right’ school and program format. Duh. But it’s actually more difficult than you can imagine. Think about it. You may be able to find the right school, but that school might not have the right program or vice versa.

I was lucky to have found the right program and the right school. In my opinion, Duke’s WEMBA program offers all the benefits of a part-time program and overcomes all of the negative aspects. In contrast to other programs from top business schools, Duke offers the value you expect to receive in the classroom as well as the relationships you wish to obtain from being a full-time student.

After examining many reasons, it came down to one simple thing that happens to work very well at Duke. It’s the glue that keeps everything together. It’s the oil that keeps the engine alive. It’s the one thing that sometimes gets discounted and underappreciated over rankings and branding. Over who is on the news and who isn’t. Over who published what and who didn’t. This one thing is called—culture. At our business school, we refer to our culture as Team Fuqua.

Want an Executive Summary? This is it

Because of its culture, Duke is able to overcome all the negative things the most part-time programs have. Duke attracts people who want to build relationships. Let me say that again. Duke attracts people who want to build relationships. Whether it’s the full-time MBA or one of the three MBA programs for working professionals, Duke recruits individuals who understand the value of relationships and how they can be leveraged to move teams toward common goals. At their core, students are team players. What’s the point of attending a great school, meeting a bunch of smart people, but not a single one is willing to have a cup of coffee with you?

Because of its vision and mission, Duke wants every student—not just one particular group—to get exposed to the same type of opportunities. The school makes this happen by working with you in a customized basis when it fits your schedule as a working professional. The Career Management Center doesn’t leave you hanging like it might happen at other schools.

Duke’s educational standards are high and equal for every program, whether it’s the Daytime (full-time), Global Executive, Weekend Executive, or Cross Continent format, we all carry the same Duke degree.

Additionally, did you know that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple is a Duke executive MBA graduate? Did you know that John Allison, former CEO of BB&T Bank, is? What about Kerri Anderson, former CEO of Wendy’s International? And Jonathan Browning, U.S. CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. The list goes on. You get my point.

Lastly, I’ll tell you this. Whether you are getting your degree at The Fuqua School of Business, or at The Pratt School of Engineering, or at The Duke University School of Medicine, or whether you attended Duke undergrad, you are going to feel like you are part of one big and unified community. One Duke University. If you haven’t paid attention to how this dynamic works at other schools and their corresponding programs, I suggest you start.

Now, can you see why culture makes so much sense? Why Team Fuqua is sustainable in the long term at Duke? And why, at times it can be underappreciated or be taken for granted? Lastly, can you see why going for the executive MBA option, at the end of the day, just ended up making so much ‘business’ sense.

I hope my candid perspective helps you make an intelligent decision. This is your time. So how do you plan to best allocate your time, effort and the capital you’ll be given? I can only hope that you use your best business judgment.