The last thing you’d probably want to do right now is write a check out to someone for $94,625. But, while most of us are busy refinancing mortgages and re-evaluating our 401(k)s, that’s exactly what several hundred mid-level managers in Dallas-Fort Worth are doing.

The money’s to pay for an advanced degree called the Executive MBA. The managers hope the EMBA will catapult them to the next level in their careers, saving them from the unemployment that has wiped out the jobs of thousands of their peers along the way.

In essence, an Executive MBA degree is not much different than the master’s of business administration degree that one-third of today’s CEOs hold. But instead of tabling your career for a year or two to pursue, as happens with a typical MBA, an EMBA allows full-time employees to take classes about four days a month over roughly 20 months.

The focus on basic business principles like finance and economics is the same as with the MBA, but there’s also an emphasis on “soft skills”—the qualitative elements that make a manager good at what he or she does.

For many enrolled in EMBA programs locally, the steps toward obtaining the degree begin as a means to an end. Most of the students are deeply involved in their organizations—typically with 15 years of work experience, and eight years of managerial experience, under their belts. They want and need the degree in order to rise in rank within their companies.

Aiming Higher

Take Lynn Lyon, for example. Lyon knows exactly what she wants to do when she finishes the EMBA program at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. She’s aiming for a new role at Pioneer Natural Resources, the oil and gas exploration and production company where she’s worked for the last five years.

Lyon, a West Virginia native, moved to Texas in the mid-1990s and worked toward a master of science in information systems (she didn’t complete her thesis) before taking a position in management consulting at Ernst & Young.

At E&Y, “there were a lot of opportunities, and I worked with a lot of very bright people, and that gave me the skills to [succeed],” she says. “I was able to land some pretty big engagements with companies like American Airlines, Intel. I had some very successful projects and loved what I did for a living.”

After about four years with E&Y, Lyon and her husband started a family. Lyon says she traveled for work until she was six months pregnant, then decided to start her own company and began working with former clients—TXU and Pioneer among them. Then things got overwhelming.

“I just couldn’t handle that and having a newborn at home. It was a little bit too much,” she says. So Pioneer, her then-client, offered her a position within the company. She’s currently in middle management at Pioneer, handling budgets and scheduling.

“We do a great job of keeping the lights on,” Lyon says of her role on the support side, “but it’s not driving revenue, and traditionally, before, that’s what I did. I was in the middle of the action, not just supporting” it.

Pioneer encourages employee education, though, and so Lyon took it upon herself to attend two leadership certification classes at SMU Cox. That’s when her goal of an EMBA took root. “I was so engaged, the teachers were excellent,” she says of the classes. “I came away with so much I could apply, and that kind of sparked it.” Lyon knew if she wanted to move out of support and into operations, she’d have to be proactive. She approached her boss, who has an MBA, and created a work schedule that enbables her to work nine-hour days, four days a week, plus a half-day on Friday, in order to attend classes at SMU.

Necessity or Luxury?

Students like Lyon are popping up in class–rooms across Dallas-Fort Worth. Locally, five universities offer some sort of EMBA program, which is significant considering there are only about 200 such programs in the world.

Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Orange, Calif.-based Executive MBA Council, says enrollment in EMBA programs has been steadily increasing. As for applications, Desiderio says, “it’s trended upward the last few years. Will that be the same for this year? We’ll see how the final data nets out.”

Meantime, Desiderio is cautiously optimistic about the effect the sagging economy will have on executive education programs. Some see an EMBA as a luxury, a feather in the cap of an executive-to-be that isn’t necessarily worth the degree’s near-six-figure cost.

“I don’t think that there’s a large trend that would indicate executive-level recruiters are particularly seeking out EMBA graduates,” says Joseph Daniel McCool, author of Deciding Who Leads: How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct & Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent. “I would not say that this is a primary filter for a lot of recruiters.”

Though an EMBA hasn’t become a prerequisite for the C-suite, that may be changing. The MBA degree, which once guaranteed job security and a substantial salary increase, has become almost commonplace. If a college degree is the new high school diploma, and the MBA is the new undergraduate degree, some students are hoping that an EMBA will be the boost enabling them to rise above the pack.

“We’re really at a point now of significant competition for each and every new management opportunity that comes avail–able,” McCool says. “The EMBA helps you stand out, particularly in an environment like this, but it doesn’t get you the job.

“Just having a credential—I don’t think that’s enough,” he says. “I think it really boils down to how you articulate what you’ve learned and how you’ve applied it. Leadership in times of turbulence is much different than in times of prosperity.”

Financing An EMBA

According to Desiderio of the Executive MBA Council, EMBA programs were originally set up as opportunities for companies to improve—and subsequently fund—employee education. They were also often a perk for a job well done. By Desiderio’s estimate, however, some employers have stepped away from funding responsibilities over the last decade or so.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the way companies have changed. It used to be you go to a company, work there for 30 years,” Desiderio says. “From my perspective, the fact that upward of 65 percent of students for these programs are either paying their own way or paying partial tuition—for me that is not a negative. People are looking at it as an investment and are willing to pay for the degree.”

Nationally, funding for the programs is split in thirds. About one-third of students are fully funded by their employers, one-third of the students are partially funded, and one-third foot the bill themselves.

At SMU Cox, the percentages are slightly different. Ellen Lee, the associate director of SMU’s Executive MBA program, says 31 percent of students are funding the program, which costs $94,625, themselves; 48 percent are partially funded by their employers; and only 21 percent are fully funded by the companies they work for.

“There has been a change in that larger corporations have decreased their funding levels, while smaller or family owned companies have increased their funding levels,” Lee says.

A similar situation exists for the class that began Baylor’s Dallas EMBA program in the fall of 2008. A whopping 47 percent of that class is paying the full $75,500 tuition on their own, while the remaining 53 percent are receiving some kind of corporate assistance. Those who get corporate help receive an average of $5,000 a year from their employers.

Sharon Mawet, co-director of the Baylor program—which is held at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas—says graduates report a typical salary increase of 40 percent to 60 percent upon attainment of the degree.

According to the Executive MBA Council’s 2008 report, students internationally averaged a 23 percent in increase in salary from the time they entered the program to when they completed their degree. Forty-three percent reported earning a promotion within their company while they were enrolled in the EMBA program.

Pioneer Natural Resources is partially funding Lynn Lyon’s EMBA from SMU Cox. And Lyon, like many partially funded students, has made a two-year commitment to the company. In an effort to recoup their investment, many corporate sponsors ask employees to sign an agreement to repay the tuition should they decide to leave the company within a certain time frame.

The fact is, though, some universities aren’t helping to boost corporate confidence in their curricula. In recent years, many EMBA programs have begun offering “career counseling”; some will go so far as allowing corporate recruiters to meet with current students. In some programs, students who are partially or fully funded by employers are required to provide a waiver signed by their employer in order to participate in career-development programs. SMU Cox provides career-change planning and allows executive search presentations. UTD recently hired RiseSmart, a job concierge service, to provide placement help for its EMBA students.

“Sometimes people make the assumption that if you go for an EMBA, then you’re looking to leave your company,” says Desiderio of the Executive MBA Council. “It may be that someone is getting an executive MBA [and decides to leave their company], but chances are that they were going to leave that company regardless.

“I would say, though, that people go back [to school] because they are looking to improve their opportunities,” he says. “In this market, where we’ve got a down economy, I think smart people get more skills. In a competitive market, you want more tools in the tool belt.”

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Work-life Balance

Amassing tools for the C-suite comes at a cost—and it isn’t merely financial. EMBA programs are grueling, and most students say they spend 10 to 20 hours each week preparing for class. Add 25 hours of class each month—plus a 40-hour work week on top of family responsibilities—and the stress can be intense.

“I tell my friends that I hope they’re still my friends next year when I graduate,” Lyon says.

Juggling work and school as the mother of a kindergartener takes its toll, but Lyon sees the effort as time well spent. “I’m not in it for the paper,” she says, referring to the degree. “At this point, for most of us, the time is more valuable than the money.”

Like many of her classmates, Lyon is determined to parlay the things she’s learned in the classroom into a chance to shine at the office, and says her company is her first priority. She’s determined to keep her commitment to the organization that has funded her education, but, as with many aspiring executives, she’s focused on the big picture. The EMBA, Lyon says, demonstrates how serious she is about advancing her career.

In the meantime, she’s applied to work on a special project with Pioneer’s president. “I’m very optimistic, but I’m realistic,” she says. “I could always go back to running my own company again.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 22, 2009
In this story, we incorrectly said that Baylor’s EMBA program requires students to obtain a waiver from employers in order to participate in career-development programs. In fact, permission is not required.