Neil Cohen teaches a course in the World Executive MBA program at George Washington University. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

The Washington region has become home to a rising number of graduate-level business programs designed for corporate executives as universities inside the Beltway and beyond look to tap the concentration of relatively well-educated, well-compensated professionals here.

The trend comes as many institutions struggle to maintain consistent or elevated enrollment in their traditional full- and part-time MBA programs as the weak economy has made it difficult for prospective students to leave or scale back at their jobs.

“By expanding the student base you’re able to have more students and bring in more resources,” said Jan Williams, chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an international body that accredits business school programs. “It’s a way to maintain your MBA enrollments or even grow them in a time when it would be otherwise difficult to maintain or grow them.”

Executive MBAs are unique not only for the students they enroll, but their structure. Many meet in person as infrequently as one or two weekends a month, or even less if the program includes an online component. Meanwhile, the instruction starts at a more sophisticated level given the students’ prior work experience.

Universities experienced a swell of demand for continuing education and graduate programs at the dawn of the recession as older workers looked to retool and younger workers sought safe haven in academia.

A class taught by Cohen at George Washington University. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

But as the economic slump drags on and national unemployment remains high, those already in the workforce are more cautious about leaving a stable job.

Several local universities reported that applicants for full-time and part-time MBA programs have been on the decline in the past three years.

“There was a day when it was build it and they’ll come,” said James Bailey, the director of executive development programs at George Washington University’s business school. “You ran a good degree and you didn’t have to worry about enrollment.”

Meanwhile, several local schools reported gains in executive MBA enrollment over that same three-year period. Those programs have been more resilient in part because the students attracted to them tend to have a greater degree of job security and more lucrative incomes.

That’s especially true in the Washington region.

“Our economy has held up fairly well. We have an above average population in terms of advanced education. We have a pretty high median income,” said Greg Hanifee, assistant dean of executive programs at the University of Maryland’s business school. “So for all those reasons, schools like the D.C. market to recruit from.”

Coming to Washington

But some schools have done more than just recruit. Several universities from outside the Washington region, including Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina, have expanded their academic offerings at satellite sites in the region to include MBA programs tailored for executives.

Johns Hopkins has had a campus in the Dupont Circle neighborhood since 1992, including a site where students can now earn a slew of part-time master’s degrees in business disciplines, such as finance. Last fall the Baltimore-based institution introduced a weekend MBA program that primarily attracts an executive audience, said William Kooser, associate dean of students.

“There are some fine institutions already there but there’s a large group of folks in the target age range for continuing education,” Kooser said. “Having a name that people recognize moving into a new market is very important, and preferably having something that’s unique and different about the program.”

But while the pool of executive MBA candidates may be higher in this region than others around the country, it’s still a narrower base of students than those pursuing more traditional MBA programs. They also have the potential to be future donors or hire graduates, a residual benefit to the university beyond a simple tuition check.

“This is a competitive marketplace and there’s a response to that,” said Bailey at GW. “It’s a supply and demand relationship.”

“I think that’s especially the case at an EMBA level. It’s the difference between driving an Acura and an Audi. It’s a smaller market you have to appeal to, but they’re a more prestigious market,” he added.

Looking elsewhere

Local universities have also set their sights outside the region. Maryland will open an executive MBA program next month in Beijing as it looks to export an American-style business education to fast-growing China, Hanifee said.

“The other things that schools are looking at are expanding geographically, both within the U.S. and internationally,” he said. “That is definitely a trend, especially with schools that carry a big brand recognition that they can leverage across the U.S.”

According to an AACSB International survey, the number of executive MBA programs nationwide grew by 10 percent between the 2008 and 2010 school years, said Williams, who also serves as dean of the business school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Yet the number of schools offering such programs was stagnant, meaning the same set of schools had introduced additional programs. His college, for example, is preparing to start its fifth executive MBA program.

“The hardest and probably most expensive in terms of development time is the very first one you do,” he said. “Every time you add one I think the incremental work and incremental cost is less.”

“And as you get into that business, you see new and different opportunities,” Williams added.