Choosing Your Path:
MBA vs. MPA

From course focus and education outcomes to career opportunities and earning potential, compare and contrast an MBA and an MPA, gather useful resources, and pick your path to a career in organizational administration

You’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, and you know you want a career in management. But how do you pick the right master’s for your future career goals? A Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) share a number of similarities and both degrees can lead to fulfilling and lucrative careers; however, there are defining features that set these two paths apart. While both degrees focus on organizational management, one prepares students for high-level careers in the private sector while the other readies students for work in the public, or non-profit, sector. If you have an idea of your career goals, but aren’t exactly sure which path you should take to get there, keep reading to learn how to align your passion and philosophy with a degree that works for you.

The Basics: MBAs & MPAs

MBA and MPA degrees might have quite similar acronyms, but they are intended for two very different career paths. However, there might be situations where a prospective graduate student will have a tough time choosing one over the other. Let’s learn what makes these two degrees unique.

What Is an MBA?

An MBA, or Master of Business Administration, is a graduate credential that focuses on business concepts at the management or executive level. It’s a degree program typically designed for individuals seeking to advance their careers at a for-profit organization in the private sector. Therefore, the curriculum focuses more on maximizing profits, shareholder value, and organizational efficiency.

Typical classes will cover subjects such as marketing, finance, organizational theory and behavior, accounting, data analytics, business ethics, and business strategy. Most students can complete their MBA coursework in about two years, although some accelerated programs can be completed in as little as one year.

What Is an MPA?

MPA stands for Master of Public Administration. This is a graduate degree also takes about two years to complete, although some students may be able to finish sooner depending on their course load, prior academic training, and work experience. The primary goal of an MPA program’s curriculum is to train students to create a valuable social impact or make a significant difference for their organization and the people it serves. In other words, to do the greatest good for society.

As a result, coursework will focus less on increasing profits and more on courses such as public policy, social policy, urban planning, administrative ethics, politics, administrative law, and budgeting.

What Is the Fourth Sector?

Traditionally, there have been three sectors: government, private (for-profit), and social (non-profit). The government’s goal is to support itself and its citizens. The goal of a private organization is to make money and maximize shareholder value. The social sector’s role is to advance a public interest, such as charitable or social causes.

But over the past few decades, there has been a merger or shift of these sectors. Social and government organizations have begun operating in a more entrepreneurial way, focusing on efficiency and innovation. On the flipside, private companies are emphasizing social responsibility as part of their corporate goals. This fourth sector is perfectly suited for those ambitious students who are up to pursing a dual masters, earning an MBA and an MPA.

Weighing Your Options: MBA vs. MPA

Now that you have a good overview of the difference between MPA and MBA degrees, it’s time to take a closer look at how these differences can affect your career choices and goals.

Curriculum Focus

There are a few classroom similarities between MPA and MBA programs, especially when students choose a particular concentration. But much of the curriculum will be different, in both subject matter and method used to learn the concepts, theories, and skills. Here’s what you need to know.

MBA

Like many other graduate programs, students will take core and elective courses. The core, or foundational courses, will teach students more universal business-related content. Sample core courses include business communication, finance, and foundations in marketing. Elective courses will focus on a specific area of the student’s choosing, such as derivatives, project management, and web applications.

In many MBA programs, students will need to complete and present a final project near the end of the program, often referred to as a capstone project. This will be an opportunity for the student to apply all the knowledge they have learned throughout the program to a real world issue or challenge.

MPA

The structure of an MPA program’s curriculum is similar to that of an MBA in that there will be core or foundational classes that all students must take, along with elective or concentration coursework of each student’s own choosing. Most MPA programs will require all students take core classes, such as introduction to public administration, program planning, and managing public organizations. There will also be a wide selection of electives to choose from, including public financial management, grant writing and management, and healthcare finance.

Depending on the MPA program, a capstone project may also be required. Most MPA students must also complete an in-person requirement. Some schools will call this an internship while others will refer to it as a residency. No matter what it’s called, it provides students the opportunity to practice team-building skills, network, and apply their classroom knowledge to the real world.

Primary Skills

Functional, primary skills are those that a person can put to work right away in their new career. The MPA and the MBA each teach similar yet different skills. Here’s what to expect.

MBA

While enrolled in an MBA program, students can expect to learn functional skills to take on tangible business challenges. For example, developing a long-term corporate strategy will require the ability to read and understand accounting and other financial statements. These are skills students may learn in their accounting or strategy-related coursework. But implementing a corporate strategy will also require top-notch interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills, all of which are a form of indirect learning MBA students can expect.

MPA

Entrepreneurship and financial skills are also emphasized in an MPA program. However, one skill that may take on greater importance in an MPA program is leadership. While a business has the primary focus of profitability, a non-profit or other social organization has the more complex challenge of completing its overall mission. This will not only require the successful financial operation of an organization, but also the ability to function in the social and political realm. This necessitates learning of a variety of skills, including a broad understanding of business, legal, administrative, political, and ethical concepts and theories.

Career Paths

Even though there is some overlap between MBA and MPA programs, they each offer advantages for those interested in careers in certain organizations. Let’s look at why one degree is generally going to be a better suited for students who have specific occupational goals.

MBA

The MBA curriculum is tailored for students with a strong interest in entrepreneurship or who would like to develop skills to take on greater responsibilities in a role that focuses on financial performance. For example, an MBA graduate would learn the skills to develop a new marketing plan for a company’s new product release. Therefore, an MBA is usually for those who will likely see themselves with a corporation of similar type of large business.

MPA

An MPA student might look for an organization that’s mission-driven, though they may still take on similar projects and roles as someone in a private business. An MPA doesn’t guarantee a job outside of the corporate realm. Many industries with strong business relationships with the federal or state and local governments will appreciate a businessperson who has an MPA degree. Having someone with connections and training with the public sector will be quite useful.

Salary & Career Growth

No matter which degree you choose, it’s reasonable to expect to have a noticeably larger paycheck after you graduate in a position that takes advantage of your MBA or MPA degree. Check out the management and finical positions below.  

MBA

Job DescriptionMedian SalaryJob Growth Rate (2018-2028)
Top ExecutiveTop executives prepare, develop, and execute the strategic decisions for an organization. Responsibilities may include management of lower level executives, supervision of organization programs, and improvement of operations efficiency.$104,6906%
Human Resource ManagerThe mission of a human resource manager revolves around the management of an organization’s personnel. Duties may include monitoring hiring activities, resolving employee disputes, and improving workforce efficiency.$116,7207%
Accountant and AuditorThe primary task of accountants and auditors is to create and review financial data and records. They may also ensure the accuracy and reliability of financial information and identify potential tax implications of business decisions.$71,5506%

MPA

Job DescriptionMedian SalaryJob Growth Rate (2018-2028)
Political Scientist Political scientists examine political theories, systems, and concepts through the creation of research, collection of information, and analysis of data. $122,2205%
Social and Community Service ManagerSocial and community service managers work in community and social service organizations to oversee and coordinate program objectives and administrative goals.$67,15013%
Urban and Regional PlannerThe primary goal of an urban and regional planner is to work with government officials and private companies to develop land use programs and strategies.$74,35011%

Personal Philosophies & Career Goals

Before you choose the path you’re going to pursue, it’s important to understand the factors that important to you. From philosophy to career goals, let’s breakdown the considerations you should keep in mind.

Philosophy: MPA vs. MBA

1

Profitability vs. Social Good

What’s your passion? If you are interested in organizational growth and increasing shareholder value, then an MBA might be the right choice. In contrast, if a social cause or political belief is what drives you, consider getting an MPA. This isn’t to say that someone earning an MPA doesn’t care about financial numbers or someone studying for an MBA only cares about money. But not everyone will have the same level of interest in all organizational missions, so carefully weigh what’s most important to you.

2

Government vs. Private Industry

In many cases, the government workplace can be very different than that of a private employer. From the pace of work to employer philosophy and organizational culture, there’s a different dynamic between working for a private corporation and working for the government. No work environment is inherently better than the other, just different. Which do you prefer?

3

Numbers vs. Ideas

Because public sector organizations aren’t primarily motivated by money, they have other ways of measuring success. Some people might prefer looking at financial statements or some other concrete measure of accomplishment. While these individuals can certainly find fulfilling work outside private business, they may not appreciate less tangible forms of goal measuring often associated with beliefs or ideas.

Career Goals: MPA vs. MBA

1

Private Sector vs. Public Sector

The organization choice may be one of the biggest reasons to opt for one degree over the other. While there is much overlap in where an MBA or MPA graduate can work, getting an MBA makes it more likely someone will end up in the private sector, and an MPA means there’s a greater chance someone will work in the public sector.

2

Salary vs. Benefits

There are many exceptions, but there is a general trend for higher salaries in the private sector, but more generous benefits in the public sector, especially with state and federal government jobs. For those who prefer higher cash compensation, an MBA might make more sense than someone who appreciates better insurance and retirement benefits or more paid leave.

3

Theory vs. Practice

The missions and goals of many public sector organizations are often hard to measure and fully achieve. For instance, an organization may exist to change a certain law or way of thinking in society. While there is plenty of practice necessary in achieving this goal, there will be more work relating to developing an idea. This may require research or a new way of examining an existing issue. In contrast, many for-profit companies focus on tangible outcomes. This means there is greater emphasis placed on results and what needs to be done to get those results.

Resources

1American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management (AAHAM): AAHAM works on behalf of various healthcare professionals in an advocacy and professional development role.

2American Society for Public Administration (ASPA): The mission of the ASPA is to advance various public and non-profit organizations and causes. They offer a number of resources including networking opportunities for students and professionals.

3Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM):  With its mission focused on advancing the field of public policy, the APPAM works by promoting research and assisting in public policy education, including the operation of a mentor matching program for students.

4Forté: Even though Forté is tailored to helping women succeed in business, it has plenty of information that can help anyone make a more informed decision about getting an MBA degree.

5Grammarly: This is a free resource (although paying will provide additional features) to help improve the quality of your writing by finding grammar mistakes or offering tips to make good writing better.

6Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA): The NASPAA creates standards of public service academics, including accrediting master’s level public administration and related programs.

7O*NET OnLine: O*NET is a comprehensive occupational resource where users can learn more about almost any career or industry, including its skill, knowledge, and education requirements.

8Stacy Blackman Consulting – Blog: Stacy Blackman Consulting is an MBA admissions consultant, but they offer a very informative blog with MBA advice that’s updated several times each week.

9U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Outlook Handbook: This is one of the best resources for learning about potential careers and professions. Users can learn about what it takes to launch a career, income data, job growth data, and where to get more information.

10U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) Best Graduate Schools: USNWR is best known for its rankings of schools, but they also offer academic information to make comparing schools much easier.