MPA and MBA sound a lot alike to the human ear, but these two graduate-level degrees have some very significant differences in focus and application. If you’re trying to decide between a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Business Administration, read on for a closer look at some of the defining characteristics that make these programs similar in some ways and very different in others.
What do MPA and MBA programs have in common?
- Both are graduate-level programs designed for students wanting to pursue high-level or managerial positions in the private or public sectors.
- Both programs can help professionals boost their knowledge, expand their skills, and advance their careers.
- Both professional degrees open up a wide range of career possibilities in the private sector, government service, nonprofit organizations, or the military.
Some key definitions
To better understand the differences between these two graduate degrees, it’s important to break down some of the most commonly used terms. MPA: Investopedia defines an MPA as “a master’s level degree in public affairs that prepares recipients of the degree to serve in executive positions in municipal, state and federal levels of government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The focus of the program centers on principles of public administration, policy development and management, and implementation of policies. It also prepares the candidate to deal with specific challenges faced in public administration.”
MBA: Investopedia defines an MBA as “a graduate degree . . . that provides theoretical and practical training to help graduates gain a better understanding of general business management functions. The MBA degree can have a specific focus, such as accounting, finance, or marketing. An MBA is a level up from an undergraduate business degree. An MBA generally places the graduate well above those with only undergraduate degrees.”
Public sector: The part of national economy providing basic goods or services that are either not, or cannot be, provided by the private sector. These services typically include the police, military, infrastructure, public transit, public education, and health care. The public sector consists of federal, state, and local governments, their agencies, and their chartered bodies. In the United States, the public sector accounts for approximately 20 percent of the entire economy. Governmental organizations protect the public interest, provide for the common security, and make decisions to promote the best interest of society.
Nonprofit (or voluntary) sector: Nonprofit organizations are established “for a public or mutual benefit other than generating profit for owners or investors,” explains Krisztina Tury of LearningtoGive.org. While they can take a variety of forms structurally, legally, and in their fields of interest, nonprofit organizations share five common characteristics: They are organized, private (separate from the government), self-governing, non-profit-distributing, and voluntary.
Private sector: The part of the national economy made up of private enterprises and not controlled by government. It includes the personal sector (households) and corporate sector (companies). “Businesses create and distribute goods and services that enhance our quality of life, promote growth, and generate prosperity. They spur innovation, reward entrepreneurial effort, provide a return on investment and constantly improve their performance responding to market feedbacks. They draw on the skills, effort and ingenuity of individual workers, and share with them the economic value created by the enterprise,” explains fourthsector.net. Do these definitions help illustrate why an MPA is often described as an MBA for nonprofit and government work? The Master of Public Administration is considered the public sector equivalent of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree in the private sector.
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Key differences in MPA vs. MBA program focus
Both degrees require approximately two years of study, and many schools offer online programs that provide the flexibility graduate students need to allow them to continue to work full-time and tend to family obligations. A Master of Public Administration program is designed to teach students how to fulfill managerial and administrative positions in public and nonprofit organizations, including governmental regulatory agencies, educational institutions, and health care services. The mission of these organizations is to serve humanity and improve the social condition. Students build strong skills that prepare them to:
- Write and implement effective public policy
- Manage financial and human resources to achieve policy goals
- Navigate the complex arena of ethics and accountability
While there is some overlap in the coursework, the curriculum for a Master of Business Administration program provides training in private sector management. With a strong emphasis on economics, finance, and marketing, students are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to lead business organizations where profit generation is the goal. Although courses in ethics and team leadership are often part of an MBA degree, the main focus is on developing the business skills effective leaders need to:
- Understand market trends
- Anticipate areas of growth
- Increase profitability
- Drive change
MPA vs. MBA curriculum comparison
You can get a feel for the differences between these two professional degrees by doing a side-by-side comparison of the core courses required for each program. MBA candidates begin by taking core business courses. Common topics include accounting, finance, economics, statistics, marketing, management, operations, and ethics. As an example, Post University’s core MBA curriculum contains:
- Organizational Creativity, Discovery, and Innovation
- Strategic Integrated Marketing Communications
- Organizational Dynamics and Effectiveness
- Business Analytics for Managers
- Financial Tools for Managers
- Quantitative Analysis for Decision Making
- Business Strategy and Planning
- Project Management
While MPA core courses at Post University include:
- The History and Future of Public Administration
- Ethics in Public Administration
- Public Policy
- Labor Law and Labor Relations
- Public Finance Policy and Application
- Risk Management for Public Administrators
- Research Methods for Public and Nonprofit Administrators
MPA vs. MBA concentrations
Both programs allow students to choose an area of specialization or concentration. This helps broaden their knowledge and hones their professional skills in an area that complements their previous experience and supports their desired career path. An area of concentration looks great on a resume and shows prospective employers that you have a special interest in a relevant business field. MPA program areas of concentration include:
- American political process
- Public policy
- Health policy
- International relations
- Urban planning
- Human resource administration
- Administrative law
- Public financial management
- Community development
- Emergency management and homeland security
Some popular MBA concentrations include:
- Corporate Finance
- Corporate Innovation
- Health Care Systems Leadership
- Data Analytics and Decision Making
- Project Management
- Investment Management
- Global Supply Chain Management
- Management Consulting
- Sustainable Enterprise
Other important things to consider
Funding sources: Private businesses are funded by profits; the public sector relies primarily on taxation, fees, and financial transfers from other levels of government for funding. Nonprofit organizations are usually “non-profit distributing,” which means their funding must come from donations, foundations, and government grants. Although nonprofits can generate profit, it must all be used to support the operation of the organization and cannot be distributed to owners or directors, explains LearningtoGive.org.
Measuring results: It’s much harder for managers in nonprofit and public-sector organizations to quantify results. Because the goal of most nonprofits is to fulfill a social mission and not to increase a monetary bottom line, “unmeasurable outcomes” are a defining characteristic of this sector. It’s also the primary reason some students feel challenged and inspired by MPA programs that “focus on social missions while also emphasizing the skills required to obtain funding for an organization.”
Career flexibility: MPA graduates can easily move between public, private, and nonprofit sector employment. Business school graduates tend to stay in the private sector for their entire career and can have a harder time finding employment due to more limited educational exposure to public policy subjects. A 2012 report from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center found that nearly one-fifth of all workers in the United States are employed either directly or indirectly by government. “
The Fourth Sector” effect: As it becomes more common for corporate environments to take on social missions and/or become increasingly more socially responsible, MPAs might have an even larger role to play in the private sector. “Over the past few decades, the boundaries between the public (government), private (business), and social (non-profit) sectors have been blurring as many pioneering organizations have been blending social and environmental aims with business approaches,” notes fourthsector.net, creating “for-benefit organizations.” The defining characteristic of these organizations is that they integrate social and environmental aims with business approaches, often embodying features such as:
- Inclusive governance
- Transparent reporting
- Fair compensation
- Environmental responsibility
- Community service
- Contribution of profits to the common good
The millennial generation workforce: U.S. News & World Report states that according to a report by the University of North Carolina, “by 2020 it is estimated that 46 percent of employees in the workplace will be millennials.” This generation needs to feel inspired at work, the report shows: “Having meaningful work and a sense of accomplishment are important factors for millennials.”
This may drive enrollment in MPA programs. Equally as interesting, a 2014 survey by Bentley University found that the millennial generation might be the most independent and entrepreneurial to come along in a while. “Only 13 percent of survey respondents said their career goal involves climbing the corporate ladder to become a CEO or president. By contrast, almost two-thirds (67 percent) said their goal involves starting their own business,” writes Forbes contributor Rob Asghar. This could keep enrollment in MBA programs at a steady pace.
Student loan forgiveness programs: A very practical difference to consider when comparing MBA and MPA programs lies in the possible eligibility for federal student loan forgiveness that some public service professionals qualify for. The PSLF Program “forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer,” explains the U.S. Department of Education.
Two final questions
Are you mission-motivated and determined to make positive changes in the world?
An MPA degree gives you the skills and knowledge to turn your passionate idealism into a reality. In coming years, graduates with public administration degrees will guide public policy on many important issues, including renewable energy, governmental efficiency, health care, and the aging population.
Are you motivated by profit and growth — fascinated by the inner workings of corporate economies, finance, operations, and marketing?
Perhaps you’re committed to carving out your own unique career path as an entrepreneur. An MBA may be your ticket to fulfillment. Regardless of which program you choose, nationally recognized Post University is committed to making sure you have every resource you need to have an extraordinary learning experience. Our innovative online programs with classes taught by experts in their fields provide you with the opportunity to tailor your graduate degree and concentrations to align with your personal aspirations and career goals.