MPA vs. MBA: Which is Right For You



If your goal is to move into management, improve your leadership skills, or increase your salary, one approach is pursuing a graduate degree in your field or a closely related field. Many specialized master’s degree programs offer courses and training that can advance your expertise and potential for a higher-level position; two popular examples are the master’s in public administration (MPA) and master’s in business administration (MBA).

The MBA has long been considered a top credential in the business field, and the newer MPA adds a focus on public service. While these two degrees are somewhat related, there are some key differences between them. Let’s take a closer look at the MPA vs. MBA decision journey.

MPA vs. MBA: Finding a Fit for Your Long-term Goals

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, director of the undergraduate and graduate public administration programs at National University, explains one of the characteristics of students attracted to an MPA degree is “a strong propensity to serve.”

Goldberg says he encounters a lot of Veterans or students with a public safety background in National’s MPA program — people who represent his idea of an innate sense of service.

“They run into danger whereas everyone else runs from it,” he says, discussing why a master’s of public administration is a popular program among those with a military or emergency services background.

He adds that many people who apply to the MPA program have already started a career in public service or the nonprofit sector.

“The MPA can help [those currently in the field] open a new door or take them to the next level of management,” he says. “It’s recognized as the highest degree for working in public management.”

The MBA degree, Goldberg says, is more focused on the for-profit sector: private businesses and publicly traded companies. While many companies today practice corporate responsibility in some way (and MBA programs often have classes about this), the goal of most for-profit businesses is firmly focused on the bottom line. The MPA, he continues, prepares students for an organization whose main focus is people or a community.

MPA vs. MBA: Looking Ahead to Career Options

Both the MBA and MPA are designed to help someone advance in their career; either would be an asset to anyone looking to rise in leadership within a company, nonprofit, or government organization.

When it comes to career options, Goldberg says the main difference is where an individual wants to end up. Someone with a health and human services background may go for an MPA, whereas someone working in banking or retail may go for an MBA.

“The MBA talks about business markets,” says Goldberg. “The MPA talks about factors affecting our communities and neighbors.”

Job titles that are common for MPA graduates, in either public or nonprofit areas, include:

  • City manager
  • County administrator
  • Mayor
  • Director of economic development
  • Executive director of a nonprofit
  • Membership director
  • Advocacy director
  • Program director
  • Grant administrator

And common roles for MBA graduates might be:

  • General manager
  • Director of finance
  • Human resources manager
  • Operations manager
  • Healthcare administrator
  • Marketing director
  • Information systems manager
  • Consultant
  • Entrepreneur

Online MPA vs. Online MBA: Is There a Difference?

Online degree options for MPA and MBA offer working students an advantage: the flexibility to fit school into their schedule and lifestyle. Online degrees at accredited schools, in general, mirror their on-campus equivalents. This means you should expect the quality of education you’ll receive in an online MPA or online MBA program to be similar to the on-campus program.

If you’re looking to earn one of these graduate degrees online, you’ll find the main difference between online and on-campus courses is the delivery method for instruction and how you interact with classmates and professors. (Instead of a study group in the campus library, for instance, you might find yourself engaging in a virtual study group with students from many locations.) As far as the degrees themselves, the differences between the MBA and MPA remain the same whether the program is online or on-campus.


Which Is the Right One For You?

The master’s in business administration and master’s of public administration both offer a rigorous educational experience and the opportunity for career advancement. One is geared toward a corporate environment while the other focuses on community — and it’s up to you to decide which one may be the right fit. Ultimately, when contemplating the MBA vs MPA, Goldberg says it comes down to goals:

“There is no right or wrong, no good or bad,” he says. “There’s just different reasons.”

If you’re looking to start or grow your career in the nonprofit or government sector, learn how NU’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) Degree could help you reach your goals.

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