Public Administration & Policy

Here’s How Much You’ll Earn with a Master of Public Administration

Here’s How Much You’ll Earn with a Master of Public Administration
An MPA may not result in a significant pay boost, but It should bring about a substantial increase in responsibility and impact. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 27, 2020

You don't enroll in an MPA program because you want to get rich; leave that to the MBAs. This degree path is for people who want to improve public health, regardless of whether they make a lot of money in the process.

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Big problems require big thinkers with strong leadership skills. In the public health sector, many of those leaders prepare for their careers in Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree programs.

Who gets an MPA? Think Leslie Knope of TV’s Parks & Recreation. Yes, she may be a stereotype, but the character is a pretty apt representation of the type of professional who earns an MPA. She is committed, hardworking, ambitious, driven to make the world a better place, and not especially motivated by money. That’s important when you’re pursuing a degree that can lead to careers that pay less than $50,000 (or higher than $100,000).

How much you can earn with this interdisciplinary professional degree should not be the deciding factor in your choice to earn an MPA. There are a lot of great reasons to get a master’s in public administration, including:

  • The desire to help people in need
  • Career flexibility
  • The ability to impact local or regional infrastructure positively
  • Improved chances of finding a job in an upper-level leadership or management position

Earning potential should also be a factor—especially if you’ll need to take out student loans to pay for a graduate degree—but it shouldn’t be the most important one.

So, how will you earn with a Master of Public Administration? In this article, we’ll cover that and more—including:

  • Who gets a Master of Public Administration degree?
  • What do students in MPA programs study?
  • What schools offer a Master of Public Administration?
  • What careers can I get with a Master of Public Administration?
  • Are MPA salaries or MBA salaries higher?
  • Are MPA salaries or MPH salaries higher?
  • How much will I actually earn with a Master of Public Administration?

Who gets a Master of Public Administration degree?

All kinds of people get MPAs because this degree can lead to careers in so many different fields. With a master’s in public administration, you can work in healthcare, city services, urban development, energy, or finance. Some MPAs hope to build careers in nonprofit management or in local, state, or federal governments. However, many professionals who choose this degree also work in law enforcement, waste management, communications, and education. This makes it difficult to figure out how much you will earn with a master’s in public administration. You might make well over six figures as budget director for a large, global nonprofit organization, or $40,000 working in local government.

What do students in MPA programs study?

Colleges and universities offering public administration programs set their own curricula and offer different concentrations and specializations. Broadly speaking, students in Master of Public Administration programs take classes like:

  • Foundations of Public Administration
  • Public Policy Analysis and Implementation
  • Program Evaluation and Monitoring
  • Human Relations in Public Organizations
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Public Finance
  • Economics for Policy, Planning, and Development
  • Intersectional Leadership Across Sectors
  • Financial Management of Nonprofit Organizations

The concentration or specialization area you choose will likely have a substantial impact on your course list as well as on your earning potential after graduation. There are a lot of MPA concentrations to choose from, including:

  • Arts leadership
  • City management
  • Community and economic development
  • Energy and environment
  • Gender and public policy
  • Homeland defense
  • Human rights
  • International conflict resolution
  • International finance
  • International relations
  • Justice administration
  • Local government management
  • Nonprofit management
  • Policy analysis
  • Public financial administration
  • Public health
  • Technology and media

Before you choose an MPA concentration, think about your career goals. Some specialization areas may help you transition into higher-paying roles. Some may help you land higher-paying positions in the private sector—an appealing option if you’re not sure you want to spend your entire career in public administration.

When you graduate with a master’s in public administration, regardless of your specialization area, you’ll have the knowledge and skills necessary to understand:

  • Policy development
  • Policy analysis
  • Public management
  • Technology implementation
  • Organizational theory

You’ll be able to look at the needs of a community or demographic strategically and lead the development of actionable policy solutions to solve specific problems.

What schools offer a Master of Public Administration?

There are hundreds of colleges and universities with MPA programs accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration. Some of the best can be found at:

While there can be a clear relationship between the relative prestige of a school and students’ future salaries, it’s not always easy to determine how your alma mater will affect your earning potential. Most colleges and universities don’t publish students’ post-graduation earnings. While a degree from Harvard or another big-name school might make it easier to land a job, that job won’t necessarily be a high-paying one when you work in public administration.

The best way to get a sense of how graduates from a specific MPA program are doing is to reach out to admissions to ask for a list of placements or employment statistics for two or three years worth of graduates. Seeing where students ended up and how long it took them to get there after graduation can tell you a lot about your prospects.

What careers can I get with a Master of Public Administration?

The reason that there is such a wide range of MPA salaries is that professionals who hold this degree work in so many roles. After earning your MPA, you might become a/an:

Of course, these aren’t the only careers open to motivated MPA graduates. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has a Master of Public Administration degree. So do former CIA Director David Petraeus and former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. This can be a highly versatile degree that takes you places you might not think of as being related to public administration. (In case you were wondering: the UN Secretary-General earns $227,253 a year; the CIA Director, $187,000; and NYC Police Commissioner, $205,180).

Are MPA salaries or MBA salaries higher?

MPA and MBA graduates both discover it’s not the degree you have but what you do with it. Master of Business Administration students have as many, if not more, concentrations and specializations to choose from—all of which lead them down very different career paths. The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580, but only if they landed jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. MBAs who graduate from top business schools may make more regardless of industry, but MBAs who go into human resources and accounting earn a lot less. The takeaway is that you can earn as much with an MPA as you would after getting an MBA, provided you aim for one of the higher-paying jobs in public administration.

Are MPA salaries or MPH salaries higher?

Like the MPA, the Master of Public Health is a broad, interdisciplinary professional degree that prepares students for a wide range of careers. That’s not where the similarities end, however. MPH salaries are also all over the map, and while a health educator might earn $46,000, an epidemiologist can earn more than $96,000. You won’t necessarily make more by getting an MPH or an MPA. The right degree is always the one that aligns with your career ambitions.

How much will I actually earn with a Master of Public Administration?

There’s no way to know the actual impact your degree will have on your current salary and future earning potential because your location, level of experience, and role will all factor into how much you’re worth to employers. You can be almost certain that you’ll make more money with a master’s degree than without one. The problem is that while you’ll probably earn more with an MPA, you won’t earn a lot more.

PayScale reports that the average salary for MPAs is about $66,000. That’s not bad, but it’s not stellar—especially in light of the fact that you can make $63,000 with just a bachelor of arts in public administration. A $3,000 jump in earnings might not be enough to justify enrolling in a master’s in public administration program.

If you’re wondering why anyone would get an MPA, then this degree probably isn’t right for you. The answer is that this is a master’s degree tailor-made for people strongly drawn to public service. They’re not usually motivated to enroll in these programs by money but rather by a desire to learn new ways to effect change in the world. They don’t just want to do good; they need to make the world a better place, and if that means racking up student loans, so be it. If you can relate, then an MPA will prepare you to work in executive and management roles in NGOs, nonprofits, government organizations, multilateral organizations, and consulting firms. The MPA will prepare you to build a career tackling some of the biggest and most intractable societal problems. You might make a lot of money in the process, or you might not, but chances are that won’t matter.

Finally, here’s one more thing you should consider. While it’s possible to go directly from an undergrad degree program into an MPA program, the best way to maximize your earning potential in all of these positions and sectors is to spend a few years working before getting your master’s degree. Practical experience can make a big difference when it comes to salary in both the public and private sectors. Chances are good that your master’s in public administration will prove more valuable when you have some real-world professional experience to back it up.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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