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Illustration by Stephane Poirier

Unlike crude oil, copper or the protagonists of John Grisham novels, all EMBAs are not created equal – if they were, how could Wharton's EMBA program in San Francisco justify charging $175,678 (all currency on this page in U.S. dollars) while San Francisco State University's costs $49,923?

Perhaps the better question is: Are the highest-sticker-price programs worth the money? If an EMBA is all about investing in one's future career, do the Whartons and Northwestern/Kelloggs ($166,500) and MIT/Sloans ($141,000) of the world justify their luxury price tag by granting a greater lifetime return on investment?

"The top universities, probably the biggest thing they offer is their highly qualified faculty," says Kelley Martin Blanco, the assistant dean of Executive MBA Programs at Columbia Business School. Columbia's EMBA-New York, which costs $161,280 for a typical 20-month program (24 months of Saturday-only study), features a course co-taught by Bruce Greenwald and the Nobel-wining economist Joseph Stiglitz. "You're getting the benefit of the experience and perspective and knowledge of these professors," says Blanco.

Location is another advantage that top-priced schools play up–it's no coincidence that four of the most expensive programs are based in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. And while schools such as Boston University ($91,500) and Baruch College/Zicklin on Lexington Avenue in New York ($75,000) enjoy the same proximity to business leaders, they may not have the clout to persuade VIPs to come and speak to students.

Yet laying out more money up front means the bar is set higher when measuring eventual returns. When The Wall Street Journal ranked 27 EMBA programs in 2008 by calculating the five-year ROI (projected salary gains after completion of the programs), only one of the top 10 "best" investments cost six figures (UCLA/Anderson, at $100,000).

Naturally, many so-called mid-tier EMBA programs trumpet their lower fees in terms of competitiveness and efficiency. "Other schools spend more on infrastructure, branding and advertising, and I would expect they pay their faculty more," says Aldas Kriauciunas, executive director of Purdue/Krannert's EMBA program, which costs $75,000. "We're smaller in size, so we can review resumés before the application process to make sure that candidates don't spend time and money applying to a program that's not the right fit for them."

Schools that charge more claim to offer advantages that fall into the category of "intangibles"–such as a network of classmates and alumni who provide lasting advantages. Blanco, who graduated from Columbia's EMBA program 10 years ago, says, "I expected to get the learning and the piece of paper, and I did. But you can't underestimate the value of that network."