5 Reasons Why I Chose to Pursue an MPA over an MBA

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush


MPAs and MBAs have a lot in common: they are both professional degrees that provide management training by way of economics, policy, statistics, and finance. What made me pick an MPA (Master of Public Administration) over an MBA (Master of Business Administration), you might ask? The MBA is surely a beaten path with many, well known benefits…but considering my interest and passion for museums and nonprofits, an MBA just wasn’t for me. I liked the idea of a professional degree, but an MBA overlooked the defining features in my field of interest. Here’s why I decided to pursue an MPA over an MBA:


1) Museums and nonprofits have harder-to-measure outcomes

A defining characteristic of the nonprofit and public sectors is unmeasurable outcomes because the point of most nonprofits is to fulfill a social mission (nonprofit organizations cannot distribute profits). A powerful business is one that can make the most money (measurable). A powerful nonprofit is one that helps more people, most effectively (not-so-measurable). This does not mean that impact assessments are not critical in the nonprofit world and that they are strongest when they include quantitative data. However, to get an MBA would mean overlooking an opportunity to really think about solving problems of nonprofit outcome measurement and would mean focusing heavily on a monetary bottom-line, which is just not a characteristic of the sector. The MPA focuses on social missions while also emphasizing the skills required to obtain funding for an organization, which is much more relevant to my continuing work with nonprofit organizations.


2) It’s a problem-solving degree- ideal for an evolving sector

If MBA programs study the market, then MPAs try to solve market failures– and there’s an obvious difference between studying and solving. In the former, it’s been figured out, you’re just learning how to do it. In the latter, there’s a large-scale problem to be solved. MBAs are hired to make an individual company more profitable and there are books on this (lots of them!) with clear rules (“buy low, sell high,” “always be closing”). In contrast, MPAs are hired to take action to lead their organizations in making the world a better place… and our literature is not nearly as abundant and the tone is less certain. Our academic journals are filled with what’s happening right now or what’s happened in the past. This is ideal for the nonprofit sector because need and the way people communicate and connect (securing funding, donors, etc) is always evolving.  There is certainly no better degree in this case, it’s just based on your goals and interests. Considering my interests, an MPA was the way to go.


3) My utility function includes public service

This is not to say that my utility function– and those of my MPA peers– doesn’t include income at all (or that the utility function of MBA grads never includes public service), but it is to say that public service drives my behavior more than money, and most likely drives the behavior of my classmates as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofit CEOs don’t make as much money as for-profit CEOs. On top of that, nonprofits are often understaffed and leaders may suffer from serious burnout. So why would us MPAs put ourselves through that? Because we want to make a difference. For some of us (and I’ll blame my background at The University of Chicago for the sincerity of this statement), we want to solve big problems and aren’t afraid of hard things. Some people might hate to look back and say, “I wish I made more money.” I respect that– and to each, his own. But for me, the most heartbreaking thing that I can imagine saying is, “I wish I made a difference for someone,” or “I wish I spent my life doing something I deeply cared about.” The MPA degree helps me build the skills to accomplish the things that I care about.


4) MPAs want to change the world… but we’re not impractical about it

I spend every day with folks who are determined to change the world. Are we starry-eyed and optimistic? Maybe. Too impractical to be effective? Definitely not. These professionals come from top tier institutions, much like the professionals that enter top MBA programs. Moreover, as an MPA, our speakers, mentors, and professors are professionals in policy and the nonprofit sector– rather than bankers and for-profit professionals. If I were to have pursued an MBA, our speakers and mentors would be those who best understand investment banking recruiting and achieving measurable outcomes– which would be much less relevant to me and my interests. Instead, I am surrounded by future foundation CEOs, grant writers, program producers, and nonprofit directors. A frequent happy hour topic for us: how not warm-and-fuzzy it is to work tirelessly for a mission.


5) The future: society’s priorities are placing higher importance on social good.

Signs are pointing toward the need for corporate environments to take on social missions– or at least some corporate social responsibility. Does this mean we might see some MPAs in corporate environments changing up the system in the near future? Perhaps. Consider this: Generation Y, the incoming professional leaders, are said to run on public service motivation. Unlike Generation X, these folks would much rather work for the government than a corporate giant. They want to give back to communities. Moreover, customers are more likely to consume goods that align themselves with some sort of social mission– and communication, transparency, and connection (nonprofit focuses) are beginning to lead corporate environments. In sum, the days of caring primarily about income and individual companies may be coming to a close. In fact, that’s what The Economist predicted for 2010 when they discussed the oncoming decline of the MBA.

When young nonprofit and museum professionals spout their desire to get an MBA because that’s what they think they “should” do, I cringe. There are many incredible reasons to get an MBA and great reasons to get an MPA as well; but I think it’s the responsibility of professional-degree-advocates to know why they are choosing one degree over the other.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Miscellaneous 51 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

51 Responses to 5 Reasons Why I Chose to Pursue an MPA over an MBA

  1. Adrianne Russell

    Great post! My husband chose his MPA for the reasons you stated above and hasn’t regretted it once.

    • colleendilen

      Adrianne, I’m so glad to hear that! Thanks for the comment!

      • Michael Ashford

        Hi, Colleen,
        I am so glad i had the opportunity to read your information about the differences between the MPA and the MBA degrees. You have really changed my perspective on things and I just wanted to say “thank you.” I saw the MBA as something I needed to get because of the status that comes with it. It also provides a great job in corporate America that pays well. After hearing your thoughts on the MPA degree I totally changed my mind about what was best for me. I am in the fire service and I love helping people. So I say “thank you once again.”

  2. sadya

    this is such a good post. it is so informative. its true that MPA programs are not touted by universities as much as they should be. Coleen , it really helps that you’ve explained the difference b/w the 2 programs. Also public administration is the preliminary for public policy, and if u look closely at leading B-schools , most of them are now either collaborating with public policy graduate programs or / and offering dual degrees.

    (BTW u shud check out Brazen careerist – ur post got alot of comments there)

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for the comment, Sadya! I’m glad that you found the post informative and I also hope that MPA programs become more touted by schools and universities. It is true that many of the leading B-schools are collaborating with policy programs or at least incorporating more policy into their program!

      Thanks for your comment on brazen as well!

  3. NWood

    I liked reading your comparisons, and I am a ’92 MBA grad. While I continue to experience enormous value and application with my degree, I was noticing the prevalence of the MPA choice in recent years among my younger museum colleagues, and you have shed light. Kudos to you all. PS – I was thrilled to find your blog, and this is my first time commenting.

    • colleendilen

      I’m thrilled that you’re noticing more MPAs in museum environments in recent years and I’m glad to hear that you liked the MPA/MBA comparisons! Thanks so much for the comment. I hope that you’ll continue to share your input in the future!

  4. T

    Interesting comments. I came about your blog because I am considering an MPA and already have an MBA. I am unsure about the practical value it would bring at that cost. I agree (and disagree) with many of your comments. Nonetheless, you know what they say about opinions… Best of luck with your future endeavors.

    • colleendilen

      Thank you for the comment, T. Very best of luck to you in your endeavors as well!

  5. John G


    Thanks for the post. I’d like to argue the right fit, MPA or MBA, depends on the student and the program. I earned an MBA from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland because they valued nonprofit students and offered over lapping course work with MNO program. Not all MBA Programs are only market driven, or only focus in measurable outcomes. The MPA Programs I looked at leaned more toward the policy and government solutions, rather than management. I’m glad you found the right fit for you, but be careful not to paint all MBA Programs as the same. There are some really good ones that understand and value the public sector.

  6. colleendilen

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the comment. Congratualtions on your MBA and it sounds like you’ve pursued a program that was a good fit for you as well!

    You are spot-on that many programs offer different specialties– with some schools creating more nonprofit-friendly MBA programs, and I agree that the best decision depends upon the student and the program. I think this is an especially relevant comment because in this article, I intend to express the general reasons why I chose an MPA over an MBA.

    Quite simply, I went for the professional degree with qualities that I felt were most innate to the nonprofit sector. Your message is an important one, though: it can depend on the person and the program.

    Thanks again for your comment– and for providing the MBA perspective!

  7. blackgirlinmaine

    As an almost middle-aged chick who has been in the non profit sector for way too many years and is also the Executive Director of a small agency, I like what you wrote. But I have to respectfully disagree with your statement about non profits npt having unmeasurable outcomes. I think in the past there was a bit of truth in that but running an agency that receives a fair share of United Way funding, I am required to have measurable outcomes…my funding and future funding depends on it.

    Since my agency is small, I am almost the chief grantwriter and by and large most of my funders and potential funders expect measurable outcomes. I will say though that many of the tools that one uses to measure success in the for profit sector are vastly different than what exists in the non-profit sector.

    My Masters is actually in Organizational Management with a focus on non profits, which I chose pretty much for the reasons that you chose the MPA. I will say though the older that I get, there are times I wish I would have gone the MBA route as it is more versatile in some ways. Anyway good post!

  8. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Good News for MBAs, Subsector-Switching, and Diversity vs. Philanthropic Freedom | Rosetta Thurman

  9. Jessica

    I am a non-profit professional and I would disagree with this assessment about the differences between MPAs and MBAs. In fact, what non-profit organizations need most right now is to find effective ways to measure their work in the community, and evaluate how well they are helping the people they come into contact with. The philosophy described here has been a serious weakness in the non-profit sector for many years; that is, drawing a line in the sand between the business/measuring people (so beaten path!) and people who work for the common good. (“We’re not interested in the numbers!”) If we could find a place where these two philosophies meet, I think we could do wonders in creating even more effective philanthropic projects.

    It is very difficult to compare MPAs and MBAs because there is so much diversity within these programs at different universities, and there are no common or universal standards. This post speaks only of generalizations, and I think this is a risky way to analyze the differences. What kind of coursework are we looking for, and what kinds of education objectives, when looking for a masters program?

    To say that MBAs don’t do problem solving is incorrect, this point stood out to me a lot.

    We can only move forward by joining forces between the business, government and non-profit sectors, not creating more divisions. I think the business sector has a lot to learn from the non-profit sector, and vice versa.

    • colleendilen

      Jessica, I appreciate your sharing your perspective here. I think it adds valuable depth to the post.

      Please allow me to clarify my statement on nonprofit measurement: I do not mean to say that nonprofit outcomes and outputs shouldn’t be measured, but rather that there is not an effective way to to do this yet. In short, we cannot measure nonprofit outputs in the same way that we measure for-profit outputs, and that’s the distinction that I mean to draw between the MPA and MBA mindset (generally- there are some great programs that try to install new ideas to get people thinking about this). I write more about this here: http://colleendilen.com/2009/11/18/weighing-outputs-measuring-social-impact-in-museums-and-nonprofits/ I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this. (I actually think you are saying something similar in your comment here).

      You are absolutely right that it’s difficult to compare every MPA program to every MBA program (I do not mean to do this; there are a wide spectrum of specialties within programs), but here I intend to explain the over-arching reasons why I personally choose an MPA over an MBA.

      I certainly do not mean to say that MBAs do not solve problems! That would be very silly as MBAs famously solve very valuable problems every single day! I mean to say that the MPA degree requires a different frame of mind for the very reason you mention in your comment: there’s a lot in the nonprofit world that still needs to be figured out in order for organizations to maximize efficiency. MBA’s deal more closely with the market, and MPAs have to handle a lot of problems related to market failures (the free-rider problem, non-excludable, non-rival goods, etc), which have not been figured out.

      I hope this clarifies this post and thank you again for your comment!

      • Ricardo

        In this century, the relationship among the public, private and non profit sectors is stronger than ever.

        Regardless of choosing an MPA or an MBA one should try to get in a program that trains you in softskills (leadership, communication, etc) and problem solving (analytical skills).

        Therefore, if you find a program with the characteristics I just mentioned, your next consideration should be to think about the alumni network you can tap into. For obvious reasons, if you choose an MPA you are most likely to connect with people in the public/private sectors, and thus making your job easier. This is the also true for an MBA.

        Check out this HBR article that makes a point about the importance of understading all three sectors:

  10. Barbara Saunders

    As a Gen-X daughter of two educators born in the 1930s, I worry that the emergence of the MPA signifies the acceleration of a bad trend – the same bad trend that resulted in the rise of the MBA. Higher education is gradually morphing into vocational training while secondary education is becoming nothing more than an obstacle course to get people into college?

    What ever happened to the notion that a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences is the basic preparation for participating in the world of work, with graduate programs being even more deeply scholarly and less vocational?

    It makes more sense to me that there would be a single degree covering the administration of various societal institutions, than “vocational ed for nonprofits” and a separate “vocational ed for businesses.”

  11. Drew

    Honestly – GREAT POST.

    I applied to a couple MPA programs this year and am still waiting to hear back. I’ve been a little unsure about the decision, but after hearing your perspective – especially when you frame it as “what drives you” (social change vs. profit), I knew I made the right choice.

    Now I just have to hear back!!!

    Thanks again.

    Drew Pierson

  12. Denise Ferreira

    Very well written post! I am a freelance writer and business student currently working on an article about MBA programs. I came across your post during my research and was impressed with your knowledge, presentation, and writing ability. Your post was very informative and educated me on a degree program with which I was not familiar. Thank you! It is refreshing to find a solidly written blog!

  13. Rennard Westley

    This is exactly what I was looking for! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Megan

    I’m trying to make that decision right now, and this was really, extremely helpful. It has helped affirm my decision to pursue the MPA. Thank you so much!

  15. Desiree

    Thanks so much for this! I’m getting my undergrad in Social Work and the I’m trying to decided which joint degree program I would like for grad school. They have the clinical track and the MPA/MSW track. I’m think I’m leaning towards the MPA/MSW track 🙂

  16. Rachael

    It’s funny I came across this. I just said the other day that the MPA could get me working with museums and such, which is a huge passion of mine. I actually came across a program the other day that you earn both your MPA and MBA at the same time. Anyone think this would be a good way to go instead of just going for my MPA?

  17. Clare

    You guys are great! For these discussions, many prospecive students are making the best decisions. I was torn between the too but have zeroed on MPA. I concur its may center on what is the driving factor vs aviz whats on ground. Will be checking this more often

  18. Clare

    You guys are great! For these discussions, many prospecive students are making the best decisions. I was torn between the too but have zeroed on MPA. I concur it may center on the driving factor vs aviz whats on ground. Will be checking this more often

  19. Cheryl

    Thank you so much Collen for such a clear understanding of MPA vs MBA career. I am about to graduate in Spring 2013 with my Masters in MPA and i am so glad that i made this choice as I also worked in the non profit sector…however, it is becoming harder to find employment in the nonprofit realm with the economy the way it is. I’m hoping that things will change.

  20. Nitin Saboo

    Thank you so much for the very informative post. I wanted to know if a Dual MBA/MPA degree makes sense?(Just your thought process on the same)

  21. Sonja

    I am so happy I read this post!! It’s taken me YEARS to finally come to grips that an MPA would be much more fulfilling for my life rather than an MBA. I completely happy with mhy decision to persue and MPA…and this post helped tremendously! Thank you, thank you!!!

  22. Jason MBA

    Hi – loved the opinion, but do not necessarily agree with (some of) it. I was an MPPA student turned MBA graduate. I too have a desire/need for public service and seek to incorporate such into my life/career. You have to understand one side in order to thrive in the other.

    I feel that in order to solve market failures, you must understand the market. I don’t believe public policy schools do a good job training students about private enterprise and their role in society. I feel there is an adversarial atmosphere at play which should not exist – there is partnership (or should be) in open democracy.

    One of the tenants of freedom unfortunately is failure – that is the price of freedom. The need for those that fail so that others may succeed.

    Business fulfills public policy goals on many levels and I feel these contributions go unnoticed and unappreciated by policy folks.

    But the true benefit to pursuing an MBA vs MPA is flexibility. I think both degrees are wonderful, and worth pursuing, but it is my believe and experience that it is easier for an MBA to find work in the public sector than it is for an MPA to find work in the private sector.

    I also believe the MBA degree better prepares the candidate for positions of management which are eriely similar when you get in such positions regardless of sector.

    Are there bad actors in business? Absolutely! Are there bad actors in public sector? Absolutely!

    Business is not always about making the most money just as public policy isn’t always about helping the most people.

    I just believe the MBA is a more flexible degree that will allow you to have more opportunities thought your career. Museums and non–profits will probably hire an MBA…less likely to get a job outside of those areas with an MPA or MPP.

  23. kavitha

    Hi colleendilen,

    Thank you so much for sharing valuable experience and i thank all for sharing their view point.Over all it helped to me to take my decision for my further academics.

    Thank you colleendilen and Thank you all.

  24. Andrea

    I have an MPA degree for the same reasons the initiator of this post has. Public service is what drives me and not so much the bottom line profits. I have worked in non profits for years and am often frustrated by tying some of the funding of programs to measurable outcomes. If we don’t achieve the desired outcome, it means less funding for our organization or program. I am also frustrated by not having enough money in our organization to develop programs and having the resources to make it work. I am even considering getting another masters degree in business as I might learn the types of skills that I didn’t learn in my MPA program.

  25. DeWayne

    Thanks for the post, I been searching for some different point of views of the two degrees.

  26. Patrick Mascio

    I tried to read the article, but your picture distracted me. Way to be beautiful, great job!

  27. Adeel Yousuf

    After all my research for the right option me and I have decided that dual degree of MBA/MPA is a perfect way to go as far as the career is concern all the best guys, like this blog very much nice motivation..

  28. Laura

    I found myself looking to enter an MBA program but for some reason I was unsure about it, when I learned about MPA it just clicked although I knew little about it. Reading your post has helped immensely. Thank you

  29. Lana

    I’m so glad I found this post! Having graduated in May, I was unsure what path to take. Having read some negative things about MPA/MPP programs (which I’m leaning towards because I’m more of a humanitarian anyways), I was discouraged about them, but reading your post helped me realize that is exactly what I want to do! Thanks!!! 😀

  30. Eli O

    Thank you Colleen for this post. Very helpful post at a moment when I am taking a hard look at an MPA. In fact I am looking at USC’s Sol Price program. Cheers.

  31. Darcy

    Your post is very inspiring to me. I’m trying to apply for MPA in U.S. finger crossed.

  32. Michael

    Actually i was stuck in making choice between the two programs. I have two admission for MBA and MPA. No i have found the information that will help me in making the right choice of career. Thank you very much.

  33. Fredrick

    I find your assessment justifies your decision for your perspective. However you discount the MBA’s who’ve successfully led NFP. Just because a business is not for profit, does not negate the fact that it still must deal with the market, finance, and everything else that other ‘businesses’ deal with. If you think that just NFP’ have a “free-rider” problem, talk to any HR exec, I’m sure you’ll have a fabulous time convincing them of that. Quite frankly you are correct that nonprofits serve social goals, while businesses serve financial goals. This structure adds to the efficacy. If more not for profits would adopt better goals, they may be more effective. As for MPA vs MBA, a less myopic analysis would serve for explanation… Just remember, you probably shouldn’t demean or put down MBA’s, they’re effective people who are driven and productive making the business world better wether it is via a NFP or private institution.

  34. Lily Greaney

    Hi Colleen, The feedback you provided is very informative and you hit the nail on the head. I am pursuing my MPA for some of the same reasons you did. However, you added new incentives which only validates why I chose MPA over my MBA. Thank you!!!

    Lily G.

  35. Larry Kubel

    Hi Colleen,

    I realize I’m late to the party but I want to thank you for your perspective. I just finished my BA in Social Science and have been struggling with what additional education I might pursue. Your insight into earning (and using) an MPA is very helpful.

    Larry K.

  36. Shayne Anderson

    Hi Colleen – I realize this was posted nearly 4 years ago, But I just wanted to thank you so much for your post! I have been looking into MPA, MBA, MPP, and MSW programs and have felt unbelievably lost. You have eased my mind and made me feel so much less confused.


    • Liz

      I have been looking into all of the same degrees above : )

      What did you decide?

  37. Angeline Htun

    Hi. First of all I would like to thank you for sharing. I googled it. After reading the comments and reply , I am convinced to go to MPA program. I have to go through GMat exam and I hope I could manange to answer those unseen questions. And yeah I am studying now to get prepared. Thank you so much. This page is a big encourgement to me.

  38. Michael

    In January i was stuck in making a decision between the two programs. Later on i decided to go MPA way. Now I am six months pursuing MPA at Tsinghua University. Come mid next year i will be done with the course. It is such a wonderful course!

  39. Yrekaye

    I am MPA graduating student. And major is organizational studies. MPA in generally involves all category, private and public. Its more about managing, management, finance, etc, bigger concept

  40. Annie Liu

    Hi Collen,

    I Googled “how to start a business with MPA degree” and I stumbled on your post. Thank you for sharing your reasons for choosing an MPA over a MBA. I am actually deciding whether or not to obtain a MPA. I currently work for a non-profit and have always had an interest in pubic service, but I would like to do more than what I do now because like you mentioned, I too, want to make a difference.

    I really like the way you compared MPA and MBA, it helped me better understand the two. The reasons you listed has helped me add to my own reasons of why I want to pursue a MPA and I hope to be as positive, enthusiastic and successful as you once I do complete my MPA.

    Thanks again,

    Annie L.

  41. Liz

    Do you have info somewhere about which MPA program you chose and why? I am working full time and can’t take time off for two years to devote to studying full time (single mom etc). Do you think part time programs / online programs are legit / worth it? I am in Los Angeles and went to UCLA for undergrad, but UCLA seems to only have full time masters programs.

    Thank you!

  42. Decontee George

    With high esteem i do appreciateyou for this piece. I am applying for a scholarship abroad and i needed to explain why i want to launch a career in MPA, this is an enlightenment for sure.

    From west Africa, Liberia

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