MBA vs. MPA: How to Decide Which One is Right For You

Compare MBA and MPA degrees with our in-depth guide. Explore the pros, cons, and career prospects of each to make an informed decision that aligns with your goals and ambitions. Find the perfect fit for your future!

Posted March 13, 2024

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Many individuals looking to continue their education and open up new career opportunities enroll in graduate programs. While the motivations for making this decision vary greatly based on work experience, focus, and an individual’s long-term goals and aspirations, the majority of people looking to make the jump into graduate school end up at a crossroads. A master’s degree can broaden career opportunities and raise compensation, but which one is right for you?

It’s fairly common to be conflicted about whether to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Public Administration (MPA). If you’ve found yourself facing this decision, it’s important to understand the benefits and limitations of each, as they can have very different effects on one’s career path and future opportunities.

In this article, we'll compare these two degrees to help you decide which is truly the best for you. For personalized advice on graduate school, we highly recommend booking time with a Leland coach. They'll be able to dig into your background and goals and offer insight based on years of expertise and first-hand experience. Here are some of our top coaches for master's degrees, browse all of them here.

MBA vs. MPA: An Overview

First, a brief overview. An MPA (Master of Public Administration) and an MBA (Master of Business Administration) are both advanced degrees, but they each have a distinct focus.

An MPA degree really focuses on the public sector – think government agencies, non-profit organizations, and public policy. Individuals pursuing an MPA will analyze public policy, financial management, leadership and management in the public sector, and ethics and social responsibility. At its heart, this degree focuses on creating, improving, and serving the community.

An MBA degree, on the other hand, is more focused on the private sector –think corporations, businesses, and entrepreneurship. In an MBA program, you learn about accounting, finance, marketing, operations, leadership and management, and strategy. This graduate degree is a gateway into the upper levels of the business world.

If you're interested in working in public service, government, or non-profit sectors, then an MPA might be the way to go. But if you're more interested in making your way in the private sector, particularly in business or entrepreneurship, then an MBA degree might be a better fit for you.

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s compare the benefits and limitations of these two degrees to determine which one is right for you.

MBA vs. MPA: Similarities and Differences

There are many similarities between MPA and MBA graduate degrees. Both are advanced degrees that require a bachelor's degree as a prerequisite. Both can provide students with leadership and management skills to enhance their career opportunities and earning potential. They also offer networking opportunities. However, even given these similarities, there are some notable differences that distinguish one from the other.

As previously stated, MPA degree programs are more focused on the public sector, while MBA degree programs are geared toward the private sector. The curriculum in MPA programs usually covers topics like public policy, budgeting and financial management, leadership and management in the public sector, and ethics and social responsibility. In contrast, MBA programs typically focus their study on topics like accounting, finance, marketing, operations, leadership and management, and strategy – more technical, analytical skills.

The career paths for these graduate degrees also differ, with an MPA degree typically leading to careers in government agencies, non-profit organizations, and public policy, and an MBA degree leading to careers in business, finance, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Though highly dependent on the program, many MPA programs are known for focusing on strengthening soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication for the public sector, while MBA programs emphasize more technical skills like data analysis, strategy, and decision-making for the private sector.

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Pros and Cons of MBA and MPA Degrees

MBA

Pros: MBAs offer huge opportunities for career advancement. They have broad applicability across industries, and many of these programs really focus on strengthening networking and alumni connections. This focus results in a strong foundation for any desired career path post-graduation.

Cons: While there are many benefits to an MBA, there are also some limitations that should be considered when making a decision. Due to their desirability in the business world, MBA programs have high tuition costs, particularly competitive admissions processes, and the potential for oversaturation in the job market. These limitations may not make a huge difference for qualified, hard-working applicants, but they are important to be aware of.

MPA

Pros: MPAs open doors to job opportunities in both the public and nonprofit sectors. Individuals in these graduate programs focus on public service and social impact and have many opportunities during their studies to focus on the development of policy and management skills, which are both vital to professions in the public sector.

Cons: Fewer individuals pursue MPAs as MPA graduates receive, on average, lower salaries than MBA graduates. There is less applicability for MPA degrees in the private sector, and it is sometimes difficult to make the transition to more traditional business roles as MPA degrees have less emphasis on the technical skills required in these roles.

How to Decide Which One is Right for You?

  1. Assess your goals and interests: What are your long-term aspirations? Where do you want to be in five or ten years? Which degree would help you get there?
  2. Consider Your Industry and Sector Preferences: Do you want to work in the private sector, or would you prefer to work in the public sector or at a nonprofit organization? You should match your values and motivations with your chosen degree.
  3. Evaluate Program Offerings and Reputation: Each MBA and MPA program is going to be slightly different. Not all business schools are created equal and each one has a slightly different reputation. Those reputations are going to be important as you look to expand your career opportunities after graduation. Look into specific MBA or MPA programs that interest you, and assess each program’s quality. Talk to individuals that studied what you plan on studying – did the program help them reach their goals? How does that program prepare students for future roles? Will that program help you reach your goals?
  4. Research Financial Aid and Scholarships: The cost of an MPA and MBA degree varies greatly depending on the school and region of the country. You should understand these costs, and identify funding opportunities that will help you minimize debt.
  5. Seek Advice from Professionals and Alumni: Talk to people who have done what you’re trying to do! Gaining insights from experienced graduates is going to be crucial to understanding the benefits of a master’s program. Talking with professionals in your desired field will also help you network, giving you more connections to others in your field and across the business world. This is also where a Leland coach can come in handy!
  6. Attend Information Sessions and Webinars: Information sessions will help you get to know target programs and engage with admissions staff and current students, strengthening your understanding of programs that might be a good fit for you.

Pursuing any advanced degree often gives individuals the career boost they need to get to the next level. While there are many factors to consider in making the decision of which degree and program, if you understand your long-term goals and how a degree can help you get there, the choice will be more straightforward. To read more about these degrees, head to our MBA Hub and Master's Degree Hub.

Interested in learning more about MBA programs? Here are some of our most popular MBA admissions coaches who are alumni of the top MBA programs in the country.

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