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Published: Nov 24, 2020 9 min read

A master of public administration (MPA, M.P. Adm.) is a professional graduate degree that offers an interdisciplinary curriculum spanning the fields of economics, sociology, political science, and law to prepare graduates for positions in the public sector. This master's program also prepares graduates for managerial, executive, and policy analyst roles in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations (NPOs), educational institutions, and private companies.

What You Should Know:

  • The total cost of attendance at a private, in-person, two-year MPA program can range from $120,000 to $160,000, according to the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. For a public institution such as Indiana University, the price total cost of attendance is $53,392 for an in-state student and $89,532 for a non-resident.
  • Besides tuition, fees, and course materials, prospective students should factor in food, housing, and transportation costs, along with other miscellaneous expenses.
  • There are financial aid options available in the form of merit-based fellowships, scholarships, grants, and loans.
  • Accredited programs are available on a full-time or part-time basis.
  • On average, online MPA programs tend to be more affordable, with tuition costs at Indiana University for residents starting at $29,000 and $60,900 for out of state students. At a private school such as the University of Southern California, the estimated total cost for an online degree is $79,800.
  • An MPA degree can be useful for those in the fields of marketing, finance, health services, communications, and technology.

A master's in public administration (MPA) can be a way to broaden your critical thinking skills and advance your professional earning potential. An MPA can increase a student’s likelihood of obtaining senior leadership roles, a higher salary, and promotions. According to a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics, young professionals aged 24 to 34 who pursue graduate degrees earn, on average, 19% higher salaries than those with only a bachelor's degree.

UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Sean Coffey jokes that "an MPA is like an MBA for people that care about America." Coffey currently works as the communications director for the California Policy Lab, a public policy research center with locations on the UCLA and UC Berkeley campuses. Since graduating in 2008, Coffey says he's used his MPA in a variety of positions at nonprofit organizations, including working on foreclosure prevention as well as broader communications and policy research roles.

At the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA), 90% of graduates have historically found full-time employment in their desired fields or gone on to pursue additional graduate degrees. Here's a breakdown of Cornell's MPA graduates as they enter the workforce: 40% joined the public sector, 36% found employment in the private sector, 12% in non-profit organizations, and 12% of graduates went on to pursue further studies.

Some programs also offer real-world work experience through internships in government agencies and nongovernmental organizations or externships in consultancy projects. These allow students to graduate with a robust resume, marketable skills, and a competitive advantage when entering the world of policymaking.

Admissions Process

You should become familiar with your school of interest's admissions procedure. Some MPA graduate school programs have fixed deadlines, while others offer rolling admissions, which means the school reviews applications continuously and admits students depending on space availability.

You can go to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) to see a list of nationally accredited MPA programs. NASPAA is a globally recognized accreditor of master's degree programs in the fields of public administration, policy, and affairs.

Degree Options

For those interested in pursuing an MPA program, there are many options available for different experience levels and professional aspirations. Due to the increasing demand for formally trained public administrators, you can complete the program on a full-time basis over a two-year period or pursue your degree part-time online.

Some schools, like the Harvard Kennedy School, offer joint degrees, merging the MPA with their prestigious MBA program in a three-year accelerated track. The Institute for Public Affairs at Cornell also offers dual degree programs, which combine the MPA with a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Health Administration (MHA), or Juris Doctor (JD).

Upon graduating, MPAs usually follow career paths in four distinct sectors: private, government, and non-profit.

Common job markets for master in public administration graduates are:

  • Homeland Security
  • Local government
  • State government
  • Federal government
  • Public finance
  • Health care policy
  • Non-profit management
  • Policy analysis
  • Information management

Requirements to Apply for an MPA

To apply to an MPA graduate program you must have completed a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college. Prospective MPA students tend to have degrees in political science, economics, foreign languages, and sociology. Although you don’t need to have a specific degree, some programs do require a particular number of credits in the social sciences and business administration disciplines prior to admission. Grade point average requirements tend to be 3.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale.

If you're seeking financial aid, it is common for schools to require Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores to verify you have the requirements necessary to complete your course load. Other programs forego the GRE requirement completely.

Below is a checklist of common requirements for completing your application:

  • Copies of unofficial transcripts from all institutions attended
  • Letter(s) of recommendation
  • A statement of purpose
  • An up-to-date resume
  • GRE (some programs have no GRE requirement)
  • TOEFL as evidence of English proficiency (for international applicants unless English is their primary language)
  • In-person or online interview
  • Application fee (generally between $75–$250, can be waived)

Why Get an MPA?

Getting an MPA to advance your career prospects is fair game, but pursuing this for monetary gain should not be your number one motivation, since it’s not one of the highest paying graduate degrees out there. If you're motivated to create lasting societal change from a public policy perspective, this graduate program could be the perfect stepping stone on your career path.

The data show MBA graduates make more money, on average, especially if they graduate from some of the top universities like Cornell, Harvard, or John Hopkins, but MPAs can have similar earning potential, as long as they aim for the higher paying positions in public administration such as managerial, directorial and executive roles.

Getting the Degree Online vs On Campus

If you're looking for a more affordable MPA program, enrolling in a public university's online program, especially if you're an in-state student, is more economically accessible than enrolling in a full-time, on-campus program at a private institution.

For example, the cost of attendance at a top two-year university program like Cornell was $62,966 for the 2019–20 school year for tuition and fees, plus expenses like insurance, books, and room and board.

Online programs can be as affordable as $29,000 for in-state students at a public college, while an online graduate program for a private school can be as high as $72,000 (in this case, the University of Southern California).

On the flip side, online MPA programs can offer flexibility for parents, working professionals, those who travel for work, and candidates who aren’t able to relocate to another state to attend grad school.

Apart from the difference in pricing, if you decide to pursue an online degree you'll miss out on the in-person and on-campus experience and networking opportunities. Sean Coffey adds: “If a person knows they're going to stay in the state where they’re pursuing their degree, the strength of the alumni network is definitely something to think about."