Originally, the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) degree was designed to be the professional degree for a public service career in management. These degree programs emphasized the skills and techniques used by leaders and managers to implement policies, projects, and programs to resolve important societal problems while addressing organizational, human resource, and budgetary challenges. In contrast, the Masters of Public Policy (MPP) degree was intended to emphasize analyzing and evaluating information to solve policy problems. As analysts, MPP graduates were prepared to work with quantitative and qualitative information and data to develop, assess, and evaluate alternative approaches to current and emerging issues.

Today the general differences between the MPA and the MPP often are few. Over the past twenty years, their respective curricula substantially have converged and now it is important for students to look past the degree titles to understand how each educational program might serve their career goals. In general, an MPA/MPP program will offer all students advanced instruction in public policy analysis, public management, leadership, economics, and quantitative methods, along with courses on specific policy and administration topics.

Selecting Master’s programs to which to apply requires determining your own objectives, and finding programs that will help you achieve those objectives. One way to compare and contrast MPA/MPP programs is to consider their ability to prepare you for three important careers in the field: policy analysis, management, and leadership.

  • Policy analysis is about gathering and processing information to inform efforts to solve new policy problems. Persons who seek careers in policy analysis enjoy working with quantitative and qualitative information to develop and assess alternatives for solving these problems.
  • Management is about using scarce resources to achieve policy and management objectives. Persons who seek management careers enjoy building the solutions to problems using raw materials such as financial and human resources.
  • Leadership is about taking individual responsibility for the top-level decisions about which policy and management problems an organization should address. Persons who seek leadership careers enjoy being held accountable for decisions in return for the authority to choose problems and select alternative solutions.

When you look at any MPA/MPP program, inspect the core curriculum-those courses all students are required to take-to quickly determine the relative emphasis placed on policy analysis, management, and leadership. A core curriculum that emphasizes policy analysis will feature many required courses related to economics and statistics, and will include significant projects that apply policy analysis methods to current issues. A core curriculum that emphasizes management will feature a wide variety of courses on topics such as management principles, human resources/personnel, financial management, and information systems, and may include a significant group project that exposes students to a managerial work environment. A core curriculum that emphasizes leadership will feature courses related to decision making and political processes, and may include individual leadership development opportunities such as a thesis or an advanced policy simulation.

You may find some programs also offer preparation for two additional careers:

  • Advocacy is about representing an organization to other organizations, and using the instruments of marketing and public relations to shape a broader debate about policy problems and solutions.
  • Technical specialization is about developing in-depth knowledge and expertise in the design and operation of highly complex systems, often in fields where technology evolves rapidly.

Programs that provide instruction relevant to advocacy will include courses in communications and marketing. While most policy and management programs do not intend to prepare students to be technical specialists, a few do have sufficient depth in such topics as information systems, medical informatics and advanced statistics to allow students to pursue that career option.

While some MPA/MPP programs offer comprehensive curricula that cover all aspects of the field, most will place a greater emphasis on one particular aspect. Furthermore, many programs offer specializations in particular policy topics such as health care, the environment, transportation, economic development, and welfare. If you have a desire to work in a particular region of the United States or the world, it may make sense to attend a graduate program with strong ties to that particular region. With so many options from which to choose, anyone interested in furthering a public service career will be able to find an appropriate MPA/MPP degree.