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public service

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