MPP/MPA vs. Business School

Some students thinking of applying to MPP/MPA programs also consider going to business school to earn an MBA instead. There is no doubt that there are overlapping curricula between the two types of programs and this can generate confuson about their significant differences. This page answers some questions about how an MBA might differ in its ability to launch a public service career.

Q: Isn’t much of public service about management, and if so, why wouldn’t an MBA be the better degree?

The majority of persons in public service are managers at all levels who make policy real through their implementation efforts — they are the “boots on the ground.” But managers in public service capacities must make trade-offs among a wide variety of contending goals and demands other than “profits,” including the preferences of citizens, politicians, and governments. MBA programs in business schools simply are not configured to train managers to work effectively in such complex, political environments. MPP/MPA programs specifically are geared toward preparing students for such work in their careers.

Q: But isn’t an MBA simply a stronger degree to earn when seeking professional certification and training?

Definitely not. The primary mission of all business schools is to prepare students to be private sector managers in organizations devoted specifically to the generation of profits. The business curriculum includes very little public policy content, and must meet the needs of persons seeking to work in everything from manufacturing to banking/finance to intellectual property. A majority of the students attending business school do not intend to work in public service upon graduation, and the competitive focus within business schools is on placements with the most successful private sector corporations in the world. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but business school is about getting the professional credentials to make as much money as possible, not to change the world or tackle the hard, public policy problems of our era.

Q: What are some of the key distinctions between MPP/MPA programs and business school?

MPP/MPA programs differ from business school in many important ways, including the following:

  • Program Cost: MPP-MPA program offer financial aid and their tuition rates often are much lower than business school tuition. Few business schools offer any financial aid to their students, and it is increasingly common for business school graduates to have large amounts of student loan debt to repay early in their working careers.
  • Placement Options Upon Graduation: Earning an MPP/MPA opens up employment opportunities in many sectors and there are affordable degrees that limit the financial constraints on salaries for new graduates. Many first jobs in public service pay well but not extraordinarily well. Business school graduates find that their degree closes as many doors as it opens because employers may not offer sufficient salaries to compete with private corporations or may not want to pay the salary premium to fill a position with an MBA. Employers in public service often know that they will have to engage in significantly more on-the-job training for MBA graduates who are missing exposure to the public policy and management issues at the heart of MPP/MPA programs.

Q: But wouldn’t a business degree offer greater long-term career flexibility?

All the available evidence suggests the exact opposite. The vast majority of persons earning MBAs from business schools will work in the private sector for their entire careers. On the other hand, initial placements for MPP/MPA graduates are quite diverse, with many going to the public sector, nonprofit sector or to private sector consulting firms that service public sector clients. Over time, MPP/MPA graduates tend to move across the sectors in their careers with relative ease.

Q: All that said, don’t corporate leaders often hold some of the top government positions in the United States?

With the exception of a few of the most senior positions in the U.S. federal government (example: Secretary of the Treasury), it actually is quite rare to find corporate leaders appointed to or elected to top government positions. One reason for this is that corporations are “command-and-control” bureaucracies where a boss can make things happen simply by saying so. Public service, on the other hand, involves constant negotiation and management of relationships among relatively equal partners, something corporate leaders simply are not accustomed to doing. Even at the top, salaries in public service do not come close to those in the private sector, and many in the private sector achieve lifestyles that they are unwilling to sacrifice to work in public service. In many ways it comes down to matters of values and personal goals — if “making a difference” is key, then there is little about the MBA that recommends itself to public service.

Q: Is it possible to combine an MPP/MPA and business school?

Yes it is. Some MPP/MPA programs have joint degrees with local business schools, allowing students to take significant numbers of courses in both fields. When investigating such programs, pay careful attention to the requirements of the business school for participation, as some will not count core courses taken in the MPP/MPA as prequisites for more advanced subjects in the MBA curriculum. This may limit students’ options for taking courses on the MBA side of a joint degree.