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Use Your MBA For Good: Pathways to Public Service

A master’s in business administration offers a unique pathway into public service. This guide outlines how to leverage an MBA to get your dream public service career. It also details the benefits of an MBA, financial aid options, and expected salaries after graduating.

Author: Angela Myers
Editor: STEPS Staff

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When you think of education programs for aspiring public service professionals, an MBA may not be top of mind. Yet many government agencies and nonprofits seek MBA grads, and some departments even offer incentives like the MBA fellowship offered by the U.S. Department of State.

MBA students develop leadership and administrative skills that are valuable to running efficient organizations, including those in the public sector. If you’re interested in managerial roles at nonprofits or at the local, state, or federal government level, an MBA may give you an edge when applying for jobs.

This guide outlines the unique benefits of an MBA for aspiring public service professionals, as well as the best MBA specializations and career paths after graduating.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have:

  • A better idea of how an MBA will support your public service career
  • A list of scholarships and financial aid options
  • An idea of what public service careers are available to MBA grads and the expected salaries for each

MBA Specializations in Public Service

It’s great to say an MBA can lead to a public service career, but what do these public service careers look like? And what MBA specializations are best?

Fortunately, many MBA specializations directly apply to the public sector. They don’t all apply to the same roles though, which is why it’s best to pursue one that aligns with your career goals and professional interests.

MBA in Sustainability

If you’re passionate about preventing climate change and helping businesses or government agencies go green, an MBA in sustainability may be a good choice. This specialization focuses on how different business operations impact the environment and how organizations can be more sustainable moving forward. For a better idea of what this concentration can look like, check out the MBA at the University of Maine.

Potential careers:

  • Sustainability manager: These individuals are responsible for ensuring an organization meets EPA regulations and for finding new ways to be sustainable.
  • Environmental consultants: Professionals with this title analyze different environmental initiatives and offer ways to improve them.

MBA in Accounting & Finance

Accounting and finance may not seem like obvious choices for aspiring public sector professionals, but all government organizations and nonprofits need people to manage their finances. Many MBA programs, such as the one at Southern New Hampshire University, offer a specialization in accounting or finance.

Potential careers:

  • Financial managers: If you’re looking to lead the financial operations of a small nonprofit or take on a leadership role in a government agency like the IRS, this role may be of interest.
  • Accountant: Accountants work with all types of clients, including those in the public sector. This specialization can help you get an in-house accounting job for a nonprofit or be placed on public-sector client accounts at an accounting firm.

MBA in Nonprofit Management

Many MBA programs recognize the benefit of MBAs for nonprofit leaders. As a result, they have created a specialization catered to future nonprofit managers. At colleges like Liberty University, students can specialize in the operations and managerial skills needed to run a nonprofit. These programs also help students analyze how government regulations relate to the nonprofit space.

Potential careers:

  • Nonprofit director: Most nonprofits have a director who oversees big-picture development and day-to-day operations. This MBA specialization prepares you for this role.
  • Nonprofit project manager: At larger nonprofits, there may be multiple project managers who oversee specific parts of the organization. An MBA also prepares you for these roles, especially a degree with a nonprofit management specialization.

MBA in Public Administration

An MBA in public administration is the most common specialization for those who want to work for the government or as a corporate liaison to government agencies. For a better idea of what this concentration looks like, explore the program at The Ohio State University.

Potential careers:

  • City manager: Interested in working at the local level? This MBA specialization sets you up to be a city manager.
  • Public affairs consultants: These individuals work with nonprofits, private organizations, or in government to better understand how different initiatives impact the public.

MBA in Healthcare Management

Healthcare management is a quickly growing field that often requires an MBA to enter or progress into leadership positions. MBAs with a specialization in healthcare management, like the degree at National American University, prepare students to work in hospital systems, for health-centered nonprofits, and government healthcare programs.

Potential careers:

  • Health service managers: These managers oversee the operations of hospital systems, nonprofits working on health policy reform, or government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Their roles often require significant leadership and organizational skills.
  • Medical records specialists: These individuals are trained to maintain, organize, and process patient files. They can work for a variety of organizations, including government healthcare programs, nonprofits advocating for patients’ rights, or healthcare systems.

MBA in Human Resources Management

Human resources management is needed across industries, including government departments and nonprofits. For a better idea of what this MBA specialization looks like, explore the program at Louisiana State University.

Potential careers:

  • Human resource manager: While we often think about HR managers working for companies, many government agencies and nonprofits also hire them to oversee personnel and the work environment.
  • Compensation and benefits manager: Like corporations, nonprofits and government agencies provide compensation and benefits to employees. They need skilled HR representatives to manage these programs.

MBA in Economics

Economics impacts every industry, including those in the public sector. With an MBA specializing in economics, like the program at Indiana University, graduates are prepared to help nonprofits and government organizations analyze different financial decisions and choose the one that maximizes benefits for the public.

Potential careers:

  • Financial analysts: If you’re interested in analyzing the economics of public policy, becoming an analyst in the public sector may be a good path upon graduation.
  • Financial managers: For those more interested in a leadership role, an MBA with this specialization prepares students to become managers in the financial departments of government departments or nonprofits.

MBA in Public Policy

Public policy is one of the most obvious MBA specializations for those who want to work in the public sector. The program at Carnegie Mellon University is a great example. Like a public administration specialization, this concentration involves how the world of business interacts with government agencies. Unlike public administration, a public policy specialization focuses more on researching the impact of decisions and creating data-informed recommendations.

Potential careers:

  • Director of government affairs: As a director of government affairs, you’ll liaison between a private organization and government officials to create productive partnerships.
  • Policymaker: Policymakers often work for state or federal governments. They research potential politicians and make recommendations to lawmakers.

Benefits of an MBA in Public Service

An MBA is a valuable asset in corporations, as well as for those in the public sector where research skills and the ability to analyze and improve organizational processes honed in an MBA program are often required.

Along with developing leadership skills, an MBA also allows students to learn the language of business. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business points out that many government agencies and nonprofits work with the private sector. An MBA graduate who understands the language of business, who also has connections working in the private sector, is a valuable asset to any nonprofit or government agency.

Another benefit of MBA programs is that they teach students how to achieve organizational goals and measure the impact of different initiatives. While this would look different at Goldman Sachs and the Gates Foundation, both involve a large organizational structure and many variables that can impact success.

To boost the benefits of your degree, consider enrolling in an MBA program with courses in nonprofit management. Some colleges, like Liberty University, offer a specialization in nonprofit leadership and management.

You should also brainstorm how to articulate these benefits during job interviews, on LinkedIn, or when networking with others. If someone doesn’t come from a business background, they may not see the value of your MBA immediately. Summarize how your MBA translates to the public service sector to help illustrate its value.

Paying for Your MBA Degree

MBAs are not cheap. There are some affordable programs out there, like the one at National American University with tuition at $10,935. But even lower-cost degrees come with bigger price tags than most of us can afford.

Fortunately, there are some ways to cut the cost of your degree, including financial aid opportunities designed for those who work in public service or want to work in public service after graduation. Some of the best financial aid options include scholarships, student loans, and loan forgiveness programs. Continue reading to explore each in more detail.

Grants & Scholarships

GFOA Academic Scholarships

  • Amount: $5,000 to $25,000
  • Eligibility: MBA applicant or candidate planning to pursue a career in state or local government
  • Application deadline: Opens November 2024, closes in early 2025

MBA Civics Scholarship Program

  • Amount: Full tuition
  • Eligibility: Must be an applicant for the University of Chicago’s MBA program who works at a nonprofit or in government
  • Application deadline: December 15

Nonprofit/Public Service Scholarships

  • Amount: Varies
  • Eligibility: Must be employed by a nonprofit or government organization and be enrolled in the evening and weekend MBA at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Application deadline: Rolling basis

PEO Scholar Award

  • Amount: Up to $25,000
  • Eligibility: Must be nominated by a local PEO chapter and show how your MBA will make a positive impact on society
  • Application deadline: November 20

Mary Elizabeth Lockwood Beneventi MBA Scholarship

  • Amount: $2,000
  • Eligibility: Must be a woman pursuing an MBA with a minimum GPA of 3.25
  • Application deadline: July 10

Grants & Scholarships

Student loans are one of the most common ways to pay for college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38% of students are awarded federal loans. When someone receives a federal or state-funded loan, the interest rate is often lower and sometimes, they don’t have to make payments while attending classes full-time.

Note: If attending part-time and working full-time, most loans require monthly payments while earning your degree.

While loans are useful, it’s important to understand the risks and responsibilities before applying. It’s also a good idea to dig into the application process, which can take some time.

For state and federal loans, as well as many other types of financial aid, students must complete the FAFSA. In 2024, the deadline to complete the online FAFSA form for the upcoming year is June 30.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Programs

Depending on your role after college, you may be eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program. Created in 2007, this program forgives student loans for those who work for a federal, state, local, or tribal government or a nonprofit organization. To qualify, the employee must first make 120 loan payments within 10 years. After those payments are made, federal loans and loans provided through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program can be forgiven. This program does not forgive privately funded loans. To qualify, employees must also work full-time and utilize the income-driven repayment plan.

Job Outlook for MBA Grads in the Public Sector

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 911,400 new jobs for business professionals open up annually. The average salary at these jobs in 2023 was $79,050.

Even with this high demand for business skills, the pay range can vary depending on the employer, the complexity of a specific skill set, and the required degree.

For a better idea of how much you could make in different business specialties and roles, explore the 10 careers in the chart below.

STEM CareerMBA SpecializationMedian Salary
Training and Development SpecialistsHuman Resources$64,340
FundraisersNonprofit Management$64,160
Project Management Specialist for a Nonprofit or Government AgencyProject Management$98,580
Nonprofit Financial ManagerFinance$156,100
Labor Relations SpecialistHuman Resources$89,800
Financial ExaminerFinance$84,300
Health Service ManagersHealth Management$110,680
Social and Community Service ManagersMarketing$77,030

Salary Data from BLS.gov, 2024