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May, 19, 2022

Master of Business Administration (MBA) vs. Master of Public Administration (MPA)

randy woods

Written and reported by:

Randy Woods

Contributing Writer

three people discussing work at a round table
coworkers brainstorm session

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) seem like similar graduate degrees because they are both based on learning advanced administrative skills to promote leadership and business acumen in a wide variety of careers. However, there are some key differences that can have a great impact on determining your career path.

In this Article

An MBA is chiefly focused on business and management skills in the private sector, while an MPA is concerned with governance and leadership in the public sector, including the management of non-profit companies and non-government organizations (NGO). MBAs mostly analyze market trends to reap the highest profits at the least cost, while MPAs are more concerned with studying and learning from past market failures.

"MBAs and MPAs begin at exactly the same playing field," said Kenneth Scott Perry, a North Carolina-based senior project manager, who earned an MPA degree in 2014 from the University of Illinois Springfield. "But the MBA is usually suited for the private sector, while the MPA is much more common in government."

Comparing MBA and MPA Degrees

MBAs and MPAs have similar goals of advancing financial knowledge and leadership skills, and generally take one to two years to complete. There are no specific undergraduate prerequisites for either program, but there are some suggested fields of study and work experience that many schools will consider favorably, based on differences between the two disciplines:

Who it's best for:People interested in private-sector work inside a corporation or business. MBAs are also good for entrepreneurs, especially for those who have spent some time running a small business. Best for people interested in problem-solving and making businesses more efficient and profitable.Those who want to work in the public sector, including government agencies, public education, healthcare administration, or non-profit organizations.
What you'll study:Courses focus on all fields of study related to core business principles, including finance, marketing, and human resources management. Students can also specialize in other areas, such as accounting, sales, and consulting.In addition to core business principles, MPA candidates also take on more public-minded courses in municipal budgeting, administrative law, urban planning, and community development. Other specialties include political theory, public health policy, international relations, and organizational leadership.
Preferred background:Although some MBA programs will review Graduate Record Examination (GRE) results, most schools rely on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Applicants that best fit MBA programs have two to five years of work experience; familiarity with problem-solving and strategic-thinking skills; and some credits in statistics and accounting.Most MPA programs focus on GRE, rather than GMAT, results. Previous work experience in the public or non-profit sectors is not required but considered helpful. There is no specific coursework required prior to MPA application, but some schools like to see applicants with basic statistics and accounting training.

MBA and MPA Coursework

The course curricula for MBA and MPA degrees share some common business and leadership courses to help both groups develop strategic thinking skills, which will better prepare them to become leaders in their fields. The main differences between degree studies involve technical financial instruction in the MBA program versus a greater emphasis on public service that comes with an MPA degree. 

Typical MBA Classes

Common courses in an MBA program will include:

  • Business analytics
  • Financial reporting and analysis
  • Organizational leadership
  • Marketing management
  • Financial markets analysis
  • Supply-chain management
  • Risk management

Many MBA programs also involve internships at various firms to provide real-world experience demonstrating the principles covered in the classroom or online. Some programs also feature case study presentations by visiting corporations.

Typical MPA Classes

The typical MPA curriculum tends to have a more interdisciplinary focus, because the degree has so many uses outside of business, including social sciences, policy analysis, and ethical decision-making. Typical coursework in an MPA program may include:

  • Administrative analysis
  • Collaborative governance
  • Community development
  • Economic analysis
  • Human resources
  • Law and public administration
  • Organizational theory
  • Public policy processes
  • Strategic management
  • Urban planning

Unexpected Benefits of a Master's Program

The personal and professional connections made during MBA program studies can prove invaluable in the workplace.

Entrepreneur Tyler Copenhaver-Heath, who earned an MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says his MBA professors—many of whom specialized in parts and production—were extremely helpful resources for his automotive business.

"A lot of my fellow MBA classmates were finally able to get the confidence they needed" to move into more positive territory, Copenhaver-Heath says. "It's very good for networking."

The potential for travel is another incentive. After earning his MBA from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business back in 2013, Aaron Udler, president of OfficePro, Inc., says his MBA work gave him the opportunity to visit many other countries. "I did an international MBA program and was able to travel the world, learning how to do business in various emerging markets" such as Dubai, Shanghai, St. Petersburg, and New Delhi, he says. "If you have the travel bug, then a program like this might be worth it."

Specialty MBA/MPA Programs

Most schools that offer MBA and MPA programs offer courses in specialized fields. While this is by no means exhaustive, it focuses on some of the most common types of degree concentrations being offered today:

Common MBA Programs

  • Business Analytics: The process of collecting, sorting, processing, and using statistical models and methodologies to transform data into business insights.
  • Consulting: One of the most popular subcategories because of its high earning potential, this degree focuses on identifying and solving problems within existing businesses.
  • Entrepreneurship: Focuses not only on launching innovative business ideas but also on sustaining growth, securing funding, and hiring the right workforce.
  • Marketing: Develops marketing skills and helps you understand consumer behavior through marketing research, new product strategy, and salesforce management.
  • Operations Management: A relatively new specialty, this focuses on planning, manufacturing, production, and providing services in an e-commerce environment.
  • Supply Chain Management: Especially relevant to the post-Covid era, this specialty teaches you how to streamline supply-side business activities, eliminate bottlenecks, and maximize customer value.

Common MPA Programs

  • Criminal Justice: How to implement public administration programs to protect communities and rehabilitate criminals
  • Health Care: How to develop, administer, and manage community public health policies, and respond to potential health crises
  • Political Science: Emphasizes the political system, government institutions, and national and/or international relations
  • Policy Analysis: Typically more academic and research-focused, this specialty is for people who want to be policy analysts or academics.
  • Social Change: Designing and managing global development initiatives that address critical needs, such as poverty eradication, disaster relief, education, and public health
  • Urban Development: Analyzing data related to city polices and projects, such a mass-transit and low-income housing, to meet urban growth goals

Executive MBA/MPA Programs

Another option for MBA or MPA degree seekers is the "executive" program for both disciplines. These EMBA and EMPA programs focus less on business basics and more on higher-level financial techniques. Offered mainly for people with established careers in the fields of business or public administration, EMBAs and EMPAs are meant to bolster their credentials and tend to be accelerated programs, often taking about 18 months to complete.

Dual MBA/MPA Degree Programs

Some people have an interest in not only business and finance, but also public affairs and non-profit work. A dual MBA/MPA degree program, which combines the core financial training of an MBA with the government policy focus of an MPA, covers all these fields.

The typical dual MBA/MPA program will include:

  • Executive-level accounting
  • Tax law
  • Ethics training
  • Advanced operations management
  • Risk management
  • Debt and equity structures
  • Investment strategies
  • Policy analysis
  • Organizational theory
  • Corporate behavior
  • Public economics
  • Statistical tools
  • Principles of public administration.

All of these studies will be applicable to both private and public-sector business.

At the end of a more-intensive study in both disciplines, which often takes two to three years of work, the MBA/MPA track gives students two graduate degrees with which to shape their careers. The dual MBA/MPA degree is more challenging, but it gives students a wider range of career choices that bridge the public and private sectors.

When Should I Get an MBA or MPA?

While there is a tendency to begin pursuing an MBA or MPA right after earning an undergraduate degree, it may sometimes be best to start working first and then consider a graduate degree once you have your feet wet.

Sometimes it's best to start working after you earn you bachelor's, then consider a graduate degree once you have your feet wet.

Copenhaver-Heath started his MBA work five years after he launched his automobile customization business. "It was perfect for me because I knew what I needed to know and what I didn't need to know," he says. "You can put that knowledge into your business right away and implement it immediately."

The same is true in the public sector world of MPAs. After working for three years as a government contractor, Perry began pursuing an MPA to help increase his public sector knowledge. "To become an MPA, it's beneficial to have some full-time, practical experience, especially in nonprofit or public sector worlds," he says.

Which Degree Pays More?

In general, salaries are typically higher for positions seeking MBA degree-holders than those seeking MPA degrees, as most MBA jobs are held by for-profit employers. However, salaries for many executive-level jobs that require MPAs are comparable to the MBA positions.

tyler copenhaver-heath

With professional insights from:

Tyler Copenhaver-Heath

Entrepreneur and Business Owner

scott perry

Kenneth Scott Perry

Senior Project Manager

Aaron Udler

President, OfficePro, Inc.

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