MPA vs. MBA: What’s the Difference?

MPA vs. MBA- What's the Difference infographic

No matter the industry in which you plan to pursue employment, investing in a master’s degree can help you rise to the top of your organization. But not all master’s degrees are created equal.

For emerging leaders, the choice between a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) can be a difficult one. Both focus on organizational management and there can be significant overlap in the coursework required for each degree, but there are some key differences that can have a significant impact on which career paths are open to you after graduation.

Private sector skills, public section passion

The contrast between an MBA and an MPA is usually framed as that between profit-driven, private sector employment (MBA) and mission-driven, public sector employment (MPA). However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Many MBA holders work in the government, in nonprofits or in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, likewise, many MPA holders find themselves in key positions at major corporations.4

The difference between the two degrees is more fundamental than which job markets will find your skillset attractive after graduation. Instead, it comes down to how you’ll approach your career as a manager and leader. The degree you choose will influence the success benchmarks you’ll find most important, the ways you’ll approach funding your business and your personal attitudes toward the significance of social service in your chosen career.5

Profitability versus social good

For a private corporation, it’s pretty simple to measure success: Look at the profits. From the smallest mom-and-pop retail shop to a multinational conglomerate, the success or failure of a business is dependent on its profitability. By contrast, for organizations such as nonprofits or government entities, success can be far more difficult to measure. Because these organizations aren’t expected to generate profits, success is best measured as “doing the most good for the greatest number of people.”

If an MBA prepares you to work within markets, an MPA prepares you to work in the gaps between the markets, where individual and social problems remain unaddressed. Practically, this requires a different set of skills. While an MBA will emphasize ways in which leaders can maximize profits, an MPA prioritizes skills like working with disparate groups to reach compromises and make decisions in uncertain environments.6

Relying on publicly available funds

Another key component of organizational leadership is securing and managing funding for your enterprise. In the private sector, funding is just one among many terms that can affect the bottom line. But as an MPA holder, your allocation of funds must always be conducted with a focus on the public and the public good. This difference may seem insignificant at first, but upon further inspection, the management of public funds requires a noticeably different approach. In an MPA program, you will develop the skills necessary for fundraising, soliciting donations and applying for grants.

Working hard for the common good

At the end of the day, the choice between an MBA and an MPA must take into account your personal approach to your career path. Each of us is motivated by a variety of different factors, and the degree you pursue and your subsequent career choice should reflect not only your goals, but also your interests, passions and values.

If both an MBA and an MPA can provide a comfortable standard of living and will help you develop important skills for management, it comes down to a personal choice: Would you rather spend your time working for the improvement of your company or for the betterment of society?

A bright future for the “fourth sector”

Regardless of which degree you choose, recent trends suggest an overall movement toward a business environment that places a greater emphasis on the public good, no matter where you work. Indeed, some have taken to describing the emerging crossover between private-sector, governmental and nonprofit missions as “the fourth sector,” a new hybrid market to which an MPA is perfectly suited.7 Not only that, but general trends indicate that millennials, soon to be the most represented generation in the workforce, place community service ahead of a high salary when they rank what motivates them at work.8

With an MPA, you’ll be prepared to meet the challenges of the future head on, with an adaptability that your employer will appreciate. If you have a head for business and a heart for community service, you may be destined to follow an unconventional path toward an online MPA.


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