Posted by: Nathaniel | June 19, 2008


The Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLIP) blog has been running a series interviewing people in the nonprofit sector about why they made a decision to do a business (MBA) vs. a public administration (MPA) degree. Read all of the posts here:

Its interesting – particularly as someone who has thought about whether or not to go back to business school at some point.

The thing that seems strange to me is no one really talks about the financial calculus. An MBA costs (living expenses included) upwards of $60,000 a year (at least). There are far fewer grants and scholarships available for an MBA, mostly owing to the fact that most people are leaving school with $90,000-$100,000 median starting salaries. Some schools (such as Stanford) DO have debt forgiveness programs if you go into the nonprofit sector for a few years after school. Still, thinking about dropping more than $120,000 is a big deal.

What do others think? Anyone out there going for an MPA or MBA this fall?



  1. Ok… I think there are lots of questions a potential applicant might ask themselves, and the answer will be different for each person – so sorry about the generalization and apologies in advance, as this might ramble.

    I was going through this decision process about 3 years ago. In the end I decided to take the GMAT, and then to apply to MPA programs that offered dual MBA-MPA degrees and accordingly only required a GMAT score to apply. For personal reasons, I applied to Harvard HBS-Kennedy, NYU Stern-Wagner and Columbia MBA–Johns Hopkins SAIS. Though in the end, I decided to just attend an MBA program – despite getting into all of the MPA programs.

    Some things I considered when making my decision:

    I think you should go back to grad school to add to your credentials – to acquire the skills and experiences which will allow you to do the things you want to do in the future. I don’t think you should go back to school to “discover” what you want to do in the future. Granted, tons of people I know have gotten to grad school and their goals change completely and for the better, but this shouldn’t be the reason you go back. Accordingly, think about the menu of skills and experience you currently offer – and think what is missing. Then go to the program which will most complement those skills that you are missing.

    Before going back to school I was working at a well-known multilateral organization for three years, and was also active with several social enterprises in my city. When I met with my boss to discuss the MBA vs MPA questions, she asked me to name some places I might want to work in the future. She replied that most of the places I named I could apply to with just the experience of my current position – ie: an MPA would not add allot to my experiences. She told me that the business acumen and credentials of an MBA would add more to my profile and keep my options wider in the future. Being that having options in the future was a key goal of mine, I ultimately chose an MBA. I received this advice time and time again when I talked to people.

    Make a list of the skills you have on your resume currently. Then make a list of jobs you would like to have in the short and long-term. Then look for the gaps. Will an MBA or MPA better help you fill those gaps.

    – Graduate with two degrees
    – Take tons of classes that you are incredibly interested about
    – Two summers for internships (MPA programs also allow you time for in-semester internships)
    – Access to 2 career offices
    – Access to both student bodies really helps you keep things in perspective, balance

    – Expensive. Especially since out of the workforce for 3 years. I know people who figured out what they wanted to do that first year, got their dream summer internship, and then were disappointed that they still had to stay in school for two more years.
    – You really don’t graduate with a class – unless you make an effort to get to know people and make friends quickly.
    – If you are an involved student who has an interesting background, you can get involved with the other program by yourself without paying for it. All of the schools I applied to allow you to take classes at the other program, even if you are just pursuing an MBA or MPA. The same goes for speaking events and student clubs. While I was in an MBA program these past years I was very involved with the clubs at my sister MPA program.
    – Sometimes tougher to sell in job interviews – are you not sure what you want to do?

    – Solid public policy or nonprofit background, but lacking on the quantitative or management skills
    – Wants to work in the private sector for 2-5 years to gain experience before going back to social sector
    – Interested in social enterprise, cause marketing or sustainability
    – Gets into an MBA program with a strong social enterprise focus: Stanford, Harvard, NYU, Columbia, Kellogg, Berkeley, Yale…
    – You really value the network
    – You want the flexibility to more easily be able to change industries and careers in the future

    – Coming from the private sector and wanting to make a career change
    – Specifically interested in education, government, healthcare, international development or foundations. (Those interested in nonprofit, I would really recommend into looking at nonprofit management programs specifically within schools – sometimes the better one is at the MBA school, other times at the MPP school).
    – If you are interested in a specific field and want to take 5-10 higher level courses in that field, an MBA will not allow you that flexibility due to the year-long core most schools have.
    – Possibly considering PhD or very interested in theory.

    And want to return to the social sector, some suggestion:
    – Get actively involved with the nonprofit, social, sustainability clubs in your MBA program.
    – Take skill classes – the finance, management and marketing classes – more then sector class – media and entertainment, luxury retail. These skills are what nonprofits are looking for when they interview MBA candidates
    – Get involved with your sister MPA program. Talk to professors, go to events, meet students.
    – Figure out a way to remind yourself of the things you care about – something to remind you about why you went back to school in the first place. MBA programs and fast and intense, and you can quickly lose track with all of the group meetings, corporate events and recruiting. Things that I did (besides the above) included: subscribing to all sorts of social newsletters and reading them, making a point of reading certain social sector blogs, keeping a journal of inspiring quotes, subscribing to the NY Times instead of the WSJ, volunteering, look into joining a board
    – Have one resume geared to private sector jobs, and then start FROM FRESH one for social sector jobs

    GMAT vs GRE:
    The two tests are different – studying for both while working full-time is tough. Being able to concentrate on one was a huge plus for me. It is important to realize that you apply to both schools independently. Even if you get into both the MBA and MPA, you can decide to attend just one.

    One problem is taking just the GMAT (I think) prevents you from applying to schools like Wilson, Fletcher and Syracuse. (But it does work for Georgetown, Stanford and Chicago as well.)

    Most MBA programs are more expensive, and let funding opportunities are generally available. However, some of the top MBA programs help you with your loans if you go into the public or social sector, and will also provide you funding for non-paid summer internships. Also, many top candidates with a public or social background will find that MBA schools really want them – allowing them to get into top programs and sometimes with full fellowships.

    Realize that the social and public sectors are quickly changing, and the skills that are required to make an impact in these sectors are changing. When seeking advice, make sure you are talking to people who understand these changes and can think about where your particular field will be when you graduate or in 5 or 10 years – and compare this timeline to when you think you want to move into the sector. One of the key trends I saw while I was in school was this shift of talent from the private to social sector. This was especially at senior positions where financial and management skills are at a premium, but also at mid-level opinions and people are leaving their banking or consulting career to join social ventures. You see MPA programs changing to respond to this trend with more business-like classes.

    Those are just some quick thoughts. Over the past two years I have met with lots of prospective students, and the choice really truly depends on the person. Though hopefully you might find some of this useful.

    • Hi,
      Thanks P for this valuable advice on whethre MBA or MPA.
      I am also applying to dual of Wharton-HKS, NYU Stern -Wgner and Carnegie Mellon Tepper-heinz.I have 7 years of experience in Private Sector, a mortgage company and GMAT score of 710.But no extra curricular at all. I want to make career shift into public sector. But I am interetsed in MPA specialization only in Public Finance. Ideally, i would like to start my career with Fed bank of NY , or WB etc.I would be happy even if I am accepted at just for MPA. However I am not sure of my chances of being accepted at MPA programs. Plz could you advise me on my application. And also comment on my chances of being accepted for MPA.


      • How did you do if you don’t mind me asking? Did you get in?

  2. Thanks P. for your thoughtful and smart response. This is a really good guide that I’ll surely pass on to our students at NU.

    I think one of the things that’s most interesting is the way people are moving between sectors more frequently within their own careers. I’m sure people’s sense of which degrees give them the most flexibility will be an increasingly important decision making factor.

  3. The thankings which have become a beautiful writing,

  4. This post was so helpful. Saturday evening..searching for these specific answers, all summed up in the comments section of your blog. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the helpful post! I am considering a banking career, after a long time in education. I’ve been admitted to an MPA programme but not sure if this would be useful. Can anybody help in the decision?

  6. yes, cheers for your thoughts. they helped me make a decision.

  7. Thanks for posting this and thanks to P for commenting on it. I was looking for just this information.

  8. Thanks so much P. I am currently considering a joint program wherein an MPA and PhD is obtained concurrently. So I really appreicate you touching on the PhD aspect regarding the MPA choice. Thanks again

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