MPA vs MBA

Written by Dr. LeAnn Beaty
MPA Director/Associate Professor

When I tell people my academic field is public administration, including that I direct and teach for the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program at EKU, I frequently get a puzzled look and/or a request for clarification about exactly what an MPA is, or how it differs from a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

What is an MPA?

A wide host of public administration scholars and practitioners have acknowledged that coming up with a universally acceptable definition of public administration is difficult. This is in large part due to the field’s rapid growth, the many different roles public administrators now play and because public administration is so deeply intertwined with the critical dilemmas confronting our entire society. Nevertheless, a good place to begin is with one of the field’s most recognizable scholars, a Princeton academic and the 28th President of the United States – Woodrow Wilson. In 1887, Wilson attempted to defend the Pendleton Act Civil Service reforms, to end the corrupting influence of political machines in places such as New York and Chicago, by calling for a “science of administration,” saying, “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.”  He then goes on to offer one of the most enduring definitions of administration: 

“Administration is the most obvious part of government; it is government in action; it is the executive, the operative, the most visible side of government, and it is of course as old as government itself (1887, p. 198).

Despite the fact that MPA and similar professional public administration programs have been around since the early 20th century, far too many citizens and even our own MPA applicants continue to express unfamiliarity with the field and what career paths an MPA will lead to. MPA programs are too often mischaracterized as training grounds for generating managerial generalists who are armed with standard operating procedures (SOPs) but little expertise.  I would like to offer some personal speculation as to why individuals are not, but should be, more familiar with what an MPA is and why an understanding of this degree is so critical to the functioning of a democratic society.

Sadly, my own perspective is that higher education, in particular the field of political science (of which public administration is often considered a subfield), shares much of the blame for this. Taking an American Government political science course is a general education requirement for most undergraduate students. But, if one opens up virtually any American Government textbook, the topic of public administration is covered in one chapter, titled Bureaucracy—a term which conjures up negative images of hierarchical, rigid organizations chalk full of red tape and government shirkers.

Many also mistakenly assume that politics and its heated, albeit engaging, debates are the sole domain of political scientists, not public administrators. On the contrary, MPA students quickly learn that politics permeates every area of the bureaucratic environment. Suddenly, public budgeting becomes more than numbers on a page; it becomes the vein that flows through every single public policy decision, and students find themselves engaged in intriguing debates about the various actors, budget priorities, and budget strategies for meeting the ever present fiscal challenges at all levels of government. MPA students also learn that public administrators are not mere cogs in agency wheels, armed with little discretion and even less personality, but rather power brokers and policy makers, tasked with managing not only internal agencies, but the external environments surrounding them.

The reality is that the field of public administration, and MPA programs in particular, are vastly interdisciplinary, pulling from all areas of academia, including economics, history, criminal justice, homeland security, public health, parks and recreation, and more. The field of public administration attracts, and develops, ethical public leaders with high degrees of expertise that sincerely believe their mission is to serve the public interests.

What is the difference between an MPA and an MBA?

So, what do I tell students who ask, should I get an MPA or an MBA? Students who tell me they want to work in the public sector are understandably at times unsure about which professional degree to choose. I first acknowledge the similarities between the two master level programs, by explaining that both an MPA and an MBA focus heavily on organizational management theories about the best way to motivate employees and structure organizational goals and staff to meet objectives. Each degree promotes efficiency, effectiveness and the continuous improvement of operations. Topics like finance, human resources management, policy analysis and leadership provide a foundation for both fields.

The biggest difference between an MPA and an MBA is the sector students are prepared to work in following graduation. Individuals with a passion for public service often find that their values are more closely aligned with an MPA program and its focus on the public or nonprofit sectors, whereas an MBA degree generally prepares students for careers in the private or corporate arena. The goals and values of the two sectors are in fact very different, as is the source of funding for each sector. Hence, the manner in which students use the knowledge they learn in their program to make real-world decisions for the people they serve will vary.

An MPA will prepare an individual for a variety of career paths in fields including, city management, nonprofit organizations, policy analyst, community development, public health services, and many more. The possibilities are endless.  If you want to be a leader in a public or nonprofit organization, and spend your career serving others, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree will provide the skills and knowledge to make your goals a reality.

Published on October 08, 2014