How to Decide Between Public Administration, Public Policy Degrees

Civic-minded people who want to pursue a career that helps others and contributes to their community often choose to work for government agencies or nonprofit organizations, where they face the difficult task of figuring out which programs would help their constituents the most and how to implement them.

Public administration and public policy degrees are designed to prepare individuals for mission-driven jobs where ensuring and maximizing profitability aren’t the primary objectives. The guiding purpose within these occupations is often to accomplish a specific humanitarian goal such as poverty reduction, experts say.

[Read: What Is the Difference Between an MBA and an MPA Degree?]

Kendra Smith, chair of the new Master in Public Administration program at Claremont Lincoln University, contends that governments and nonprofits, unlike for-profit corporations, concentrate foremost on “serving people in an effective and efficient and ethical manner.”

Someone who wants to gain knowledge about how to improve society may decide to enroll in such a graduate program, but in that case he or she needs to determine what type of program is the best fit.

Public Administration and Public Policy Program Differences

“The main distinction here is that a public administration degree prepares students for management of agencies, whereas a public policy degree is tailored to serve students interested in analyzing policies and suggesting improvements,” Sanya Carley, director of the Master of Public Affairs program at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, wrote in an email. “A public affairs degree trains students for both.”

Though the meaning of public affairs depends on the context, public affairs schools typically offer classes in both public administration and public policy, two branches of an enormous academic discipline often called “public affairs.” This discipline trains people to do service work in a way that does as much good and as little harm as possible.

Jacqueline Speedy, associate dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy — which is based in Pennsylvania but also offers programs elsewhere — says there isn’t necessarily a clear division between public policy and public administration.

“The fields have become merged,” she says. “There’s not a strict distinction between the various degree types in the space that we currently occupy in terms of how we educate students.”

[See: The U.S. News Rankings of the Best Graduate Public Affairs Schools.]

Public policy programs typically focus on policy evaluation, whereas public administration programs usually cultivate execution and leadership skills, Speedy explains.

Prospective students in these public affairs fields should know that they don’t necessarily have to choose between studying public administration or public policy. Public affairs schools sometimes offer hybrid programs.

For example, Carnegie Mellon offers a Master of Science in Public Policy & Management degree. According to Speedy, the degree is intended to give students a broad range of skills so that they have the flexibility to choose whatever public interest position they prefer throughout their career, regardless of whether the role centers on analyzing or enacting policies.

Speedy notes an increasing number of analytics-focused public affairs programs that incorporate lessons on data science and machine learning.

“As we all know, government probably has access to the biggest and richest data sets of anyone, and so the way to make government more efficient and effective is to start to harness that data and draw some insights and even use it to prevent problems before they start,” she says. “That is something I would say is on the forefront of where the field is going.”

What MPP and MPA Students Learn

A master’s in public policy degree provides in-depth training on how to evaluate and compare different potential policies or programs and how to assess their results. MPP students also learn how to discover and develop solutions to social problems.

In contrast, a master’s in public administration degree offers detailed guidance on how to navigate the logistical, organizational and interpersonal challenges that come up when enforcing rules or starting projects. An MPA also provides lessons on how government and nonprofit leaders can maintain their authority and exert a strong positive influence on their subordinates while holding themselves accountable and creating an atmosphere of transparency.

According to Speedy, MPP degrees provide solid preparation for policy analysis jobs within government agencies, think tanks and consulting firms while MPA degrees generally lead to administrative or executive positions, including roles as city managers.

Carley suggests that an MPP would be useful for an aspiring legislator or lobbyist. Since an MPP focuses on determining which laws are optimal, it provides valuable education for anyone who wants to write or suggest legislation.

[Read: Consider a Master’s in Public Policy for Pursuing a Law-Related Career.]

Faculty at public affairs schools note that starting salaries for MPA and MPP degree recipients are comparable. According to PayScale, the average salary among MPP degree recipients is $72,008, while the average compensation among MPA program graduates is $69,221.

Why Someone Might Attend a Public Affairs School

Aspiring policymakers may choose to attend public affairs programs out of a desire to learn how to design smart policies that don’t have unintended harmful consequences. Public affairs schools could also appeal to lobbyists or political activists who want to learn how to predict the impact of a law before they make a decision about whether to support or oppose it.

Government contractors may also benefit from a public affairs program, as could those in the private sector whose jobs involve frequent collaboration or discussions with government officials, especially individuals who work in regulated or controversial industries. Future nonprofit leaders may also choose to attend a public affairs school to learn how to oversee complex initiatives.

Another reason that may compel someone to attend a graduate program in public affairs is a desire to promote a specific charitable cause.

That was the case for Janice S. Lintz, who has been admitted into a mid-career MPA program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Massachussetts and plans to finish the program in 2023.

Lintz, a longtime advocate for individuals with hearing impairments, is founder and CEO of Hearing Access & Innovations, a consulting firm that advises organizations and government agencies around the world on how to make their products and services more accessible to people who have trouble hearing.

She has devoted herself to making the world more inclusive of individuals with disabilities ever since her daughter was diagnosed with hearing loss as a toddler.

Lintz hopes the MPA degree will enable her to become a better champion for the disabled. “My goal is to be the best I can be,” she says, “and I have a responsibility to the community to pay it forward.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

More from U.S. News

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Public Policy Major

Ask 5 Questions to Choose the Right Online MPA Program

45 Graduate Degree Jobs That Can Pay More Than $100K

How to Decide Between Public Administration, Public Policy Degrees originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up