Should You Get a Master of Public Administration (MPA)?

Note: This post was written in 2014. We’ve written more content with new research since then, including How to Get Nonprofit Software Discounts.

Growth in the nonprofit sector shows little sign of slowing down. According to the 2013 Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey, 44 percent of U.S. nonprofits plan to add jobs this year, which is up from 33 percent in 2011. Combine this steady growth with a lack of formal succession plans to manage the wave of retiring baby boomers, and it’s clear there’s a need for qualified leaders.

If you want to capitalize on this demand, investing in a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree may be an effective way to jumpstart your nonprofit career. But going back to school is no small undertaking and there are other degree options to consider, including a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

When you consider the lower pay ranges offered by most nonprofits, the time commitment and financial cost may seem especially daunting. So how do you know if an MPA is the right option for you?

To get a sense of what prospective candidates should consider to decide, we spoke with directors from top-ranked MPA programs and several MPA graduates who found post-graduate success. Here’s what we learned.

Who Is an MPA Best Suited For?

An MPA is generally best for those seeking a long-term career working for nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or government agencies where the degree’s emphasis on public policy issues is most relevant.

“As long as the applicant has an interest in public service, whether in the U.S. or abroad, the MPA is a smart choice,” says Dr. Ross Rubenstein, associate dean and chair at Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Alumni from top MPA programs often secure vital roles at organizations like American Red Cross, Clinton Global Initiative and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If you aspire to serve as the executive director at a big-name nonprofit or NGO, an MPA can certainly help you get there.

Both freshly minted college grads and working professionals can benefit from an MPA program where students have diverse age ranges and work experience backgrounds. According to Dr. Benjamin Y. Clark, a professor of public administration at Cleveland State University, “it can be very helpful to have real world experience because you can better appreciate the coursework, skills and assignments in a professional program like the MPA.”

On the other hand, Clark says, those entering the program immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree can benefit as well. “Those students don’t have to relearn how to go to school again, which can take some getting used to,” he explains.

What Skills Can You Expect to Learn?

While curricula vary from program to program, MPA coursework typically balances the managerial and finance education you get from a general business degree with coursework that targets a range of public policy issues. “An MPA is like an MBA for people who are truly passionate about enacting social change,” says Sean Coffey, an MPA graduate now working as a media and development manager at the California Reinvestment Coalition.

Rubenstein says an MPA degree emphasizes transferable skills. “Students learn how to construct budgets, conduct statistical analyses, program evaluations and policy analyses, and how to manage and lead organizations,” he says.

“You learn a lot of these things in the field,” adds Clark, “but an MPA program offers a safe space to try things out and explore new ideas.”

Most MPA programs require two years of full-time work, but there are notable exceptions, including Syracuse’s program which can be completed in one year. There are also options for professionals looking to pursue an advanced education while continuing to work. Many highly ranked programs, such as NYU-Wagner, offer part-time executive MPAs which allow candidates to earn credits for work experience.

Additionally, many programs offer students the chance to tailor their degree to suit their professional interests. According to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), “Unlike most graduate degrees, the schools offering MPA programs feature almost two-dozen specializations and a wide array of course options.” These specializations include health, environmental, education policy and public finance, among many others.

An MPA Can Accelerate Your Nonprofit Career

Whether you’re a recent college graduate struggling to find work or an experienced professional looking to advance your career, getting an MPA sets you apart from the pack in a crowded job market.

“Hiring managers are getting a known commodity,” Coffey says. “If an employee is going to be in a management position, their potential employer knows they will have a strong foundation in HR, budgeting, leadership, communications, and knowing how to ‘pivot’ quickly when necessary.”

Internship opportunities available during the program can also help you hit the ground running after graduation. MPA alum Wendy Coe, for example, was offered a full time position as a communications officer by the NBCC Foundation after she completed a paid internship.

Department leaders like Rubenstein and Clark believe their programs give graduates a real advantage when it comes to landing leadership roles at nonprofits—and there’s evidence to support this. According to a survey of 2012 graduates by the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, many MPA alumni were able to transition into leadership roles after obtaining their degree:

  • Research Associate → Manager of Institutional Research
  • Program Coordinator → Operations Director
  • Account Executive → Foundation Director
  • Legislative Assistant → Policy Director
  • Project Coordinator → Senior Housing Developer
  • Sales Coordinator → Policy Project Associate
  • Ecologist → AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow
  • AmeriCorps Member → Project Coordinator

MPA directors also say that students have an opportunity to develop invaluable contacts while they’re in the program. “Access to our extensive network of successful and loyal alumni increase job opportunities not only at graduation, but throughout a student’s career,” says Rubenstein.

In Coe’s experience, this proved to be the case. “The payoff is a foot in the door,” she says. In addition to the internship that led to her current job, going back to school gave her a chance to network with professionals in the community. “I’ve found networking to be one of the more difficult, but vital pieces to career success,” she says.

An MPA is Relevant and Comparatively Affordable

While other graduate degrees may be more recognizable outside the world of nonprofits and government organizations, an MPA degree does have practical advantages. For one, it tends to be significantly more affordable than most business school degrees.

Consider the following cost comparison drawn from tuition information listed on the websites of the following universities, all of which are ranked among the top 10 MPA programs for nonprofit management by US News:

MPA MBA
Indiana University $28,006 $50,653
University of Minnesota $32,088 $44,363
New York University $21,052 $66,588
University of Southern California $34,986 $58,674
Harvard $48,574 $72,000

 

When you plan to spend your career working in the nonprofit sector where six-figure salaries and lavish bonuses are rare, a difference of $30,000 in student debt is nothing to sneeze at.

And unless your employer is willing to pay for your tuition, business schools tend to offer very little in the way of financial aid. By contrast, more MPA programs are doling out a greater amount of need and merit-based assistance. Syracuse, for instance, offers funding to over 50 percent of incoming students.

MPAs are also more relevant to the world of nonprofits compared to general business degrees. “The types of issues that students encounter in the public and nonprofit sectors are different than they are in the private sector,” Clark explains. “The types of skills we try to instill in our students prepares them for the unique world of public service much better than an MBA would.”

An MPA May Offer Lower Pay and Less Job Flexibility

Though MPA’s are typically more affordable than other professional graduate degrees, the tuition costs are no small sum. “Education is an investment in human capital that pays dividends over a lifetime,” says Rubenstein, “but it’s also important to gain a realistic view of any graduate program’s cost.”

Among the alumni I spoke to, the difficulty of covering tuition expenses proved to be one of the most significant liabilities. “My biggest disappointment with my degree is the [over $20,000 of] debt it has left me with,” says Coe. “Having a full-time job is making it easier to pay my loan back, but it’s still difficult.” For many, “difficult” may be an understatement.

A report compiled by NASPAA puts the median starting salary for 2011 MPA grads right at $40,000 per year. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, that’s over $5,000 less than the average starting pay for the general population of students fresh out of college.

In fact, you’ll likely be at a financial disadvantage even if your degree helps you rocket through the ranks of a major nonprofit. A survey conducted by the Watkins Uiberall accounting firm shows that median salaries for executive directors and CEOs at nonprofits were between $50,000 and $75,000—around half of what a Harvard or Stanford MBA graduate earns right out of school.

Though many MPA graduates eventually find leadership positions at reputable nonprofits, the path getting there isn’t easy. “I got my MPA, entered the job market and had a hard time finding a job that fit my level of experience and education,” says Clark. “I was either too educated or had too little experience.”

Unlike an MBA, the MPA is not as applicable to positions in the private sector, which can make it difficult to market yourself outside the the public sector. While private companies—especially consulting firms—hire MPA grads every year, those degree holders are still likely to be at a disadvantage compared to candidates with traditional business degrees.

In the end, it comes down to your individual goals. Obtaining an MPA can have a great impact on your career, but it’s important for candidates to possess a lasting commitment to public service and to carefully consider any sacrifices the program may entail.

“I chose to pursue this particular degree because I knew I wanted a career where I could help others,” says Coe, “and I wanted to do that by working in a nonprofit organization.”

Coffey says getting his MPA redoubled his dedication to public service. “I saw first-hand the need for policies and laws to change so that banks, servicers and Wall Street could be held accountable for creating the housing bubble and for not helping people facing foreclosure,” he says.

As Rubenstein puts it: “While the time, costs and challenges of attending graduate school can seem daunting, it can provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a community of students, alumni and faculty dedicated to serving the public good.”

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