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MBA vs. MPA: Choosing the Best Path for You

Businesses that run effectively on a large scale are usually operated by a skilled team of interdisciplinary business specialists. Aspiring professionals may choose to further their education within a specific discipline of business, such as finance or marketing. Others might prefer to continue their education with a broader approach by pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Public Administration (MPA), both of which cover a wider spectrum of fundamental business and leadership concepts.

When looking at MBA vs. MPA degree programs, it may help prospective postgraduate students to consider the following information to help choose the educational path that suits them best.

A group of businesspeople meet around a boardroom table.

What is an MBA?

An MBA is the most commonly pursued postgraduate business degree, as it provides flexibility for professional development in several business disciplines, including management, marketing, business law, strategy, and finance. Beyond these general areas, an MBA student can also choose to concentrate on a specialized area of business. This concentration could be one of the aforementioned topics or something broader, such as international business.

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What is an MPA?

An MPA, unlike an MBA, focuses on teaching students how to operate public organizations and government institutions. A public administrator may be a government official or representative of a nonprofit organization.

The coursework featured in these programs is designed to explain how economics, sociology, and political science can be used to draft policies that effectively maintain order in communities. As community managers, aspiring public administrators may also be taught to effectively communicate with and lead people in society.

Differences between an MBA and MPA

The primary difference when comparing an MBA vs. MPA is the focus of study. An MPA program concentrates on public affairs, which could make it an ideal choice for individuals considering a career in the public sector such as with a government agency, public health organization, or nonprofit. An MBA concentrates on business management, which could make it the preferred choice for individuals seeking an administrative, leadership, or executive role in the private sector.

These differences in focus correlate to the goals of public- and private-sector roles. Positions associated with MPA degrees tend to work on finding solutions to public problems and social issues, seeking to improve opportunities. Because professions associated with an MBA are typically in the private sector, they are more likely to focus on helping businesses develop growth and stability strategies through innovation and market outreach.

MBA vs. MPA: Course requirements

Although the MBA and MPA are somewhat similar postgraduate programs, the requirements for graduating from each program differ in the following ways.

MBA course requirements

Before they can begin pursuing an MBA, prospective students must earn a bachelor’s degree, and are sometimes required to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). They must then decide whether they should pursue a specialized MBA program. For example, an executive MBA program is designed to allow students to pursue higher education without slowing down their careers. The class schedules are flexible, allowing students to attend classes on nights and weekends while they work.

Even more flexible are online MBA programs, specialized or otherwise, which can be molded to fit an individual’s schedule. Depending on the program’s course load, a typical MBA program will require approximately two years of full-time study to complete. For part-time students, this timeline extends to anywhere between four and six years of study time. Students can also find accelerated MBA programs that take only one year of full-time study, online or in person.

MPA course requirements

After earning a bachelor’s degree, prospective students may need to complete the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) before applying for an MPA program. Similar to MBA programs, MPA programs offer both a traditional course load and a specialized executive MPA option. The durations are also quite similar, with full-time study allowing students to earn the degree in two years, and part-time study leading to completion in roughly four to six years.

MBA vs. MPA: Core skills and concepts

As the MPA is the public-service-oriented equivalent of an MBA, the skills required to excel in these programs are quite similar. MBA and MPA degree holders, however, may not apply these core skills in the same ways. Here are examples of skills the two disciplines share and how they are used.

Communication

Communication is any method used to pass information from one person to another, including in-person conversation as well as text, video, and audio messages. Without communication, organizations would be unable to effectively carry out operations. Therefore, both MBA and MPA students must learn how to leverage strong communication skills in their respective lines of work.

MBA students will likely learn how to effectively communicate with their leaders and colleagues, as well as how to interact with their customers and audiences. On the other hand, an MPA program will focus on teaching students how to exchange information with the public in ways that are socially and ethically acceptable. Through better communication, both groups of professionals can better align their goals with the applicable parties and collaborate to achieve those goals.

Integrity

Integrity is usually represented by an individual’s level of honesty and morality. Integrity is critical to success in most professions, but especially for leaders in business and public administration.

If senior leaders in business continually display integrity in their actions, they increase the potential of establishing a company culture that values honest and ethical behavior. This not only helps businesses to promote better relationships between employees, but also aids in generating an overarching brand of integrity that is attractive to customers, suppliers, and providers of other support services.

An MPA program should also teach students the importance of integrity as well, but these students will need a perspective that is geared toward public officials. The objective of public administrators is to guide communities in a positive direction through policies and programs. To do so, administrators need the support of their constituents. The best way to gain this support is by performing in an honest and transparent manner.

Through graduate coursework, aspiring professionals can learn to uphold these principles of integrity without compromising effectiveness in their jobs.

Analytical and critical-thinking skills

When running an organization in the public or private sector, leaders are frequently confronted with complex issues. In this sense, there isn’t very much contrast when looking at the value of analytical thinking as taught in MBA vs. MPA degree programs.

Regardless of the line of work, thinking analytically allows professionals to evaluate the root causes of an issue and strategize a reasonable approach to resolving it. Whether the objective is to determine how to improve bottom-line profits in a business, or how to eradicate a crime epidemic in a community, analytical thinking is essential to problem solving.

Median salary for MBA graduates

According to the compensation website PayScale.com, the median annual salary for those with an MBA degree was about $90,000 as of June 2020. Numerous factors can influence salary, such as experience and the type of industry. There is also considerable salary variation between positions, as executive and C-suite jobs will offer higher salaries than administrative positions.

Median salary for MPA graduates

PayScale.com lists the median annual salary for individuals with an MPA degree at approximately $69,000. As with an MBA, there are several influencing factors that determine specific salaries. Experience and location can have a significant effect, with those working in regions with a higher cost of living often commanding higher salaries than those in less expensive areas.

MBA vs. MPA: Career opportunities

Although the skills and competencies learned in MBA and MPA programs intersect at some points, the careers available to each type of graduate are very different. The following is a breakdown of career opportunities for each discipline.

MBA careers

Careers for graduates of an MBA program include marketing manager and financial manager.

Marketing manager

A marketing manager develops and oversees strategies designed to generate interest in services. Those in the role work with other key members in a company’s ad sales, finance, and art departments to build cost-efficient campaigns that target a specific consumer demographic. The campaigns overseen can cover a wide range of forums, including television, radio, print, and online media. They’re also tasked with initiating market research strategies that evaluate societal trends and consumer attitudes.

Marketing managers evaluate existing campaigns, making adjustments to align with current market and consumer trends. They also work with advertisers to negotiate contracts, and plan various promotional campaigns through advertising channels to further optimize client reach.

While a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for a marketing manager, earning an MBA can optimize the skills needed to optimize the analytical, creative, and interpersonal skills essential to success in the role. Marketing managers also typically gain work experience in other advertising, marketing, promotions, or sales roles prior to pursuing the profession.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marketing managers earned a median annual salary of $141,490 in 2020. Job growth for the profession is projected to be 6% between 2019 and 2029, according to the BLS, which is faster than the 4% job growth outlook projected for all occupations combined.

Financial manager

Financial managers oversee a company’s overall economic vitality. By preparing financial statements, monitoring company finance details, and reviewing financial reports, those in the role determine various ways to optimize an organization’s ability to maximize profitability while also reducing costs. They typically work closely with a company’s C-suite executives due to the nature of their role.

Additionally, financial managers often supervise employees that handle various financial reporting and budgeting tasks. They also use their knowledge of industry regulations and tax laws to ensure strategies remain compliant with industry standards.

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum education requirement for a financial manager. However, earning an MBA can deepen an individual’s math, analytical, and communication skills, which are critical competencies for the profession.

Individuals pursuing a financial manager role must typically gain at least five years of experience in a complementary business or financial role, such as an accountant, financial analyst, or loan officer. The BLS reports a 2020 median annual salary of $134,180 for the profession, and also reports a 15% projected job growth for the role between 2019 and 2029.

MPA careers

Careers for graduates of an MPA program include nonprofit program coordinator and nonprofit director of development.

Nonprofit program coordinator

Nonprofit programs are run very much like any other business, with the difference being that they often receive additional support from social services. A nonprofit coordinator will publicly represent a segment of a nonprofit organization, and possibly also direct some of the organization’s programs and activities. This can entail different responsibilities, such as planning budgets, creating schedules, or supervising a group of employees.

A nonprofit coordinator may work in a charity, school, or other public institution. According to PayScale.com, the median wage for these professionals was approximately $44,000 as of June 2021.

Nonprofit director of development

Without funds, a nonprofit will most surely fail. The director of development at a nonprofit is responsible for strategizing effective and ongoing fundraising plans to ensure its continued viability.

Potential fundraising responsibilities include identifying individual donors, applying for grants, hosting charitable events, or attracting corporate sponsors. For larger nonprofit groups, the director would likely be responsible for leading a team of assistant public administrators.

Employers usually prefer (but may not require) that candidates for this position have an MPA and at least five years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience. According to PayScale.com, the median wage for professionals in this occupation was about $66,000 as of June 2021.

When evaluating MBA vs. MPA career paths, professionals must also consider their own personal preferences. An MPA can lead to a promising career in nonprofit or government leadership, but an MBA offers graduates a flexible skill set that can be adapted to fit many different areas of business. An MBA program will teach students how to communicate and collaborate with a team of interdisciplinary business professionals to enhance a firm’s profitability.

Take a bold step toward your future

By completing a Master of Business Administration, aspiring business professionals can prepare to pursue rewarding careers in the private sector. If an MBA program seems like the right fit for you, check out the Maryville University online master’s in business administration.

To see where this degree may lead you, learn more about the career opportunities that MBA graduates can pursue.

Recommended Reading

Halfway to the Top: Career Advancement for Mid-level Employees

How to Get an MBA: Resources & Tips

Soft Skills: Why Businesses Crave Them

Sources

Investopedia, “Master of Business Administration (MBA)”

Investopedia, “Master of Public Administration (MPA)”

PayScale.com, “Average Director of Development, Non-Profit Organization Salary”

PayScale.com, “Average Program Coordinator, Non-Profit Organization Salary”

PayScale.com, “Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree”

PayScale.com, “Master of Public Administration (MPA) Degree”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Financial Managers”