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What impresses students on the world’s most expensive executive MBA programme? Is it Wharton San Francisco’s lavish new campus in a landmark building, or the latest interactive technologies in each classroom? The concierge-style service they receive from school staff, the free iPads, the all-inclusive accommodation at the Meridien Hotel or the chauffeur service that drives them the half-mile there?

“It’s going to be a great place for watching the America’s Cup this fall,” says student Peter Eberle, pointing to the panoramic view of ’Frisco Bay and Bay Bridge.

He is joking (mostly), but the view is as breathtaking as the price tag. Yet executives like Mr Eberle are queueing up to pay $175,678 to enrol at the school. It is as if the recession never happened. Wharton San Francisco has even increased its fees by one per cent for the class that began last month. It may be 3,000 miles from home in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania but, after 10 years in California, the Wharton brand has been successful enough at ingesting west coast entrepreneurship and high-tech energy to enable its San Francisco satellite to steer a course through the storm.

“People still don’t think San Francisco when they think Wharton,” admits Bernadette Birt, executive director of the programme. “But many students come here with ideas already brewing in their heads and ready to step out as entrepreneurs.”

Still, the waters could yet get a little choppy as competition on the west coast increases. The lampposts in San Francisco’s financial district that do not carry advertisements for Wharton, carry ones for Babson College, the business school that specialises in entrepreneurship and which launched a fast-track MBA in the city in 2010. Across the bay, UC Berkeley will launch its MBA for executives in 2013, after Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School agreed to wind up the joint EMBA they have run since 2002.

Wharton San Francisco is positioning itself as the intensive, fully-immersive, all-expenses-paid model at the top end of the market – hence the decision to trade its downtown hub for even classier accommodation. At the beginning of the year, the school moved to the sixth floor of a Romanesque revival building once used by Hills Brothers – inventors of vacuum-packing – to roast and pack coffee on the city’s Embarcadero (waterfront).

The annual intake on this two-year EMBA is about 95 students – so what do they get for their money?

The campus – which is used exclusively for the EMBA programme and a handful of executive courses – is flooded with natural light and sustainable woods, walls hung with paintings from local artists. Breakout rooms and mother-and-baby rooms are furnished like airport executive lounges. There are two teaching rooms, each with capacity for 75 students, plus a lecture theatre for 160.

Each has the latest audio-visual equipment and cameras for web-conferencing speakers from the east coast and Wall Street. In smaller seminar rooms, students can Skype their east coast counterparts or team members working overseas. And the restaurant serves food prepared by local artisans.

While proud of the campus, Ms Birt stresses that this is not the reason students pay big money. As in Philadelphia, EMBA students receive more than 700 hours of contact time. “They are getting more for their money – other programmes offer 400 hours and their fees are not much less than ours.”

As the global economy recovers it is not too far-fetched to imagine EMBA fees breaking the $200,000 mark soon. But is there a danger that top-end schools might price themselves out of the market?

“The market is dictating the price,” says Dave Wilson, chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council.

“As long as candidates fill seats, the price is not a barrier in the eyes of either the students or the schools. The market is in equilibrium as supply is meeting demand.

“The real question is how stable is this equilibrium. Will supply continue to meet demand or will the increasing price drive down demand for the seats?

“But at the moment, the ability to increase the price of a graduate management degree is a testament to the value proposition of the degree.”

But John Fernandes, chief executive of accrediting body AACSB believes that there would be resistance from students and their employers to paying $200,000 for an executive programme.

“An EMBA is considered as an investment in the company and the individual and organisations would have to consider very carefully whether they would be willing to pay that amount for an executive MBA programme,” he says.

Wharton San Francisco has no faculty of its own. The EMBA programmes are sequenced so that faculty can teach one weekend in Philadelphia, then fly to San Francisco the next. The choice of options differs a little, but the core curriculum on both programmes is identical.

“We don’t want our students to feel the east coast is getting something different,” says Ms Birt. If anything, San Francisco students get the better deal from faculty, she adds. “The level of engagement here is different, because faculty don’t have family distractions while here. They stay at the same hotel and take the same meals and so it makes for much greater connection with students.” Wharton San Francisco attracts people working in high-tech, such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Cisco, as well as executives from the hotels, entertainment and healthcare sectors, attorneys, engineers and people working in product development, R&D and marketing.

The 30 electives chosen by students tend to lean towards the entrepreneurial, adds Ms Birt, who can now count Mozilla and Gap as neighbours.

It is a significant challenge to start a business while holding down a job, juggling family commitments and completing an EMBA.

However the biggest pressure comes from students themselves. Only a third of EMBA students at Wharton San Francisco have more than 50 per cent of their fees paid for by their employers. Many pay the entire cost from their own pockets.

“This is a big investment in their lives and careers,” says Ms Birt. “They demand a transformational experience.”


Balancing act

Getting the balance right on an EMBA programme that costs so much is a test in itself. Joanne Huang Medvitz has almost finished the two-year programme, but has found that the time involved and the financial burden are both very high.

“It’s tough since my husband and I are also investing a lot in our business (a snowboard fashion brand).

“It makes it an uphill climb for Wharton San Francisco too – they have to prove even more that it’s worth the time and those negotiations with your family.”

Peter Eberle is an entrepreneur with a successful background in financial services who is entering the second year of the EMBA.

“An MBA for someone with as much experience as I have was only going to be worthwhile if it was a top programme,” he says.

“I don’t need it for my business card, so I wanted a rigorous academic experience from a top tier institution.”

With a programme colleague, he is about to launch a business selling tyres online and fitting them at a customer’s home or workplace.

“The networking opportunities have exceeded my expectations; from alumni and VCs to other entrepreneurs with whom we’d never have got that first meeting without the Wharton name.”

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