Date Updated: April 6, 2021
A master of public administration degree (MPA) is a terminal professional designation that leads to managerial and executive careers in all levels of government. An MPA also qualifies degree-holders for similar positions with non-government organizations (NGOs) and public policy-oriented nonprofit agencies. Some stakeholders characterize the degree as an MBA for public sector professionals.
The MPA overlaps with another common graduate-level designation, the master of public policy (MPP). Unlike MPP programs, which focus more on the theory of policy design, MPA degrees prepare students to meet the challenges associated with implementing and improving public policies.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), numerous public policy professions appear poised for strong growth in the years ahead. For example, the BLS anticipates a faster-than-average growth rate of 6% for administrative services managers between 2019 and 2029. The content on this page discusses what to expect from an online master of public administration and ranks the top online MPA programs.
The 10 Best Online Public Administration Degrees 2021
|1||University of Central Florida||Orlando, FL|
|2||University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||Chapel Hill, NC|
|3||Penn State World Campus||University Park, PA|
|4||Florida International University||Miami, FL|
|5||Texas A&M University||College Station, TX|
|6||Villanova University||Villanova, PA|
|7||University of Southern California||Los Angeles, CA|
|8||San Diego State University||San Diego, CA|
|9||Marist College||Poughkeepsie, NY|
|10||Georgia College and State University||Milledgeville, GA|
What Is Public Administration?
Public administration emerged as a distinct academic discipline in the early 20th century. In 1914, the University of Michigan began offering the first master of public administration degree to improve the delivery of public services and reduce government corruption.
During the Great Depression (1929-1939), the U.S. federal government embraced an expanded mandate in the provision and delivery of public services. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous New Deal marked a watershed moment in this trend, increasing demand for specially trained government service managers and executives. Public administration education flourished as a result.
Today, public administration professionals work in all branches of local, state, and federal government. Global institutions like the United Nations also employ these professionals, as do national and international NGOs and public service agencies. Most public administrators work in office settings, though some positions require varying levels of interactive fieldwork.
Public service accounts for a large percentage of the U.S. labor force. According to the Brookings Institution, nearly 24 million people held public sector employment in the United States as of May 2020. The institution's tally counted workers in all levels of government, along with the military and other public organizations.
The Brookings Institution also notes that about one-third of the federal government's current labor force will reach retirement age by 2025. This makes now an excellent time to train for and launch a career in public administration, as jobs appear ready to open up in large numbers.
Why Get a Public Administration Master's?
An online MPA offers excellent value to those aspiring to impactful positions in government and public service. As an MBA analogue for the public sector, MPA degrees give job-seekers instant credibility. Many experts consider this terminal credential an essential qualification for career advancement.
In addition to its marketability, online master of public administration degrees offer numerous other important benefits:
- – The Ability to Make a Difference: People with MPA degrees often ascend into high-ranking roles, giving them the decision-making authority to implement positive policy changes that generate far-reaching societal benefits.
- – Higher Earnings: PayScale data from December 2020 indicates that professionals with MPA degrees earn average salaries of nearly $68,000 per year. Considering that the field's average base pay hovers around $44,000, an MPA is an excellent investment.
- – Eligibility for Public Office: Many aspiring politicians elect to earn MPA degrees, or combine a master of public administration with a law degree or MBA. This looks great on the resume of any elected representative.
Ranking 2021's 10 Best Online MPA Programs
A master of public administration degree prepares graduates for careers in a diverse, growing field. This guide ranks the top 10 online MPA programs of 2021. Each of the schools on our list holds regional or national accreditation. Accredited colleges and programs fulfill strict educational quality standards set by recognized agencies. The schools in our ranking hold accreditation from one of the following accrediting bodies:
- – Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- – Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- – New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- – Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- – WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Programs or departments within an institution may also earn programmatic accreditation from industry-specific accreditors. Students considering MPA programs should look for accreditation from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA).
1. University of Central Florida
|Public university in Orlando, FL, accredited by SACSCOC and NASPAA|
Founded in 1963 to train talent for the United States space program, UCF now offers more than 230 programs across its 13 colleges. The university awards over 17,000 degrees annually.
UCF's College of Community Innovation and Education's online MPA program emphasizes issues relevant to government work. Degree-seekers complete coursework in areas such as finance, human resources, emergency management, and economic development. Success coaches and expert faculty support learners as they hone research skills and build policy knowledge.
Students complete their degree with a capstone course exploring advanced public administration concepts. An optional, three-credit internship presents the opportunity to gain hands-on administrative experience. UCF also offers dual-degree programs that pair the MPA with master's degrees in criminal justice or nonprofit management.
Applying to UCF
In addition to an online application, students must submit official transcripts, three recommendation letters, a resume, and a goal statement. UCF maintains separate deadlines for fall term and spring term admissions.
Program at a Glance
2. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
|Public university in Chapel Hill, NC, accredited by SACSCOC and NASPAA|
Among the United States's oldest public universities, UNC-Chapel Hill has educated students since the late 18th century. The university's historic campus boasts architectural highlights such as the Old Well and the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower.
UNC-Chapel Hill's MPA program prepares graduates for diverse government, nonprofit, and private-sector careers. Catering to working professionals and military service members, the fully online program incorporates hands-on learning experiences. Enrollees enjoy online access to academic support, career services, and student organizations.
The program offers concentrations in local government, public management, public health, nonprofit management, and international relations. Students can explore areas of interest through an array of electives. An optional three-day on-campus immersion provides opportunities for networking and discussion with faculty and peers. The program concludes with a public service practicum and a portfolio review.
Applying to UNC-Chapel Hill
Students must submit an online application, a statement of purpose, a resume, and three recommendation letters. The university requires GRE, LSAT, or GMAT scores for most applicants. The program offers four start dates each year.
Program at a Glance
3. Penn State World Campus
|Public university in University Park, PA, accredited by MSCHE and NASPAA|
Penn State World Campus has educated students online since 1998. The Pennsylvania State University System's second largest campus, Penn State World Campus serves over 20,000 students.
Offered in partnership with Penn State Harrisburg's School of Public Affairs, the online MPA program trains current and future public leaders seeking professional advancement and diversified career options. MPA candidates can pursue a concurrent certificate in homeland security, public sector human resources management, or public budgeting and financial management.
Core curricular subjects include research methods, organizational behavior, and policy analysis. Electives explore specialized topics such as agricultural biosecurity and disaster psychology. Students with less than two years of public administration experience engage in a required 150-hour internship. The program's culminating experience requires degree-seekers to complete an individual or group research project.
Applying to Penn State World Campus
Students must submit an online application, official transcripts, three references, a resume, and a personal statement. The program may require GRE or GMAT scores for applicants with GPAs below 3.0. Penn State World Campus offers three annual start dates.
Program at a Glance
4. Florida International University
|Public university in Miami, FL, accredited by SACSCOC and NASPAA|
Established on a deserted airfield in 1969, today FIU enjoys a reputation as a top-tier research institution. An air traffic control tower — now known as the Ivory Tower — still stands on campus.
FIU's MPA program welcomes students from diverse academic and career backgrounds. Learners without public administration experience can supplement their coursework with a 300-hour public service internship. Enrollees benefit from resources such as FIU's alumni mentorship program and MPA-specific institutional scholarships.
The MPA curriculum explores foundational public administration topics and current issues in the field. Projects and group work develop enrollees' teamwork skills and research proficiency. The program offers specializations in areas such as homeland security and emergency management, nonprofit and community development, and urban policy innovations. Students pursuing a specialization can earn a graduate certificate alongside the master's degree.
Applying to FIU
FIU reviews applications on a rolling basis. Students must submit an online application, official transcripts, an essay, and three recommendation letters. The program requires GRE, GMAT, or LSAT scores for some applicants.
Program at a Glance
5. Texas A&M University
|Public university in College Station, TX, accredited by SACSCOC and NASPAA|
Founded in 1876, Texas A&M is the state's oldest public higher education institution. Today, the university enrolls over 71,000 learners annually across its Texas campuses, online division, and branch campus in Qatar.
Housed in the Bush School of Government and Public Service, the executive MPA program fosters management, problem-solving, and critical analysis skills. Designed for experienced public service professionals, the program features homeland security, nonprofit management, and public management tracks.
Degree-seekers in all three tracks follow a core curriculum covering fundamental public service topics such as policy formation and program evaluation. They complete the program with two capstone seminars and a project in which they work with local governmental or nonprofit agencies. Learners attend two weeklong on-campus residencies.
Applying to Texas A&M
Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree and demonstrate at least five years of public service experience. Prospective students submit an online application, a resume, a statement of purpose, three recommendation letters, transcripts, and optional GRE or GMAT scores.
Program at a Glance
6. Villanova University
|Private university in Villanova, PA, accredited by MSCHE and NASPAA|
A Catholic, Augustinian university founded in 1842, Villanova takes its name from St. Thomas of Villanova. The university's values embody the saint's legacy of scholarship and community assistance.
Emphasizing strategic planning and management, Villanova's online MPA program prepares graduates for government and nonprofit leadership roles. Students develop theoretical knowledge and hone research abilities though core courses in subjects such as public administration theory and applied data analysis.
Learners explore ethical leadership approaches and apply analytical tools to in-depth research projects. Electives examine management issues in a variety of nonprofit and government settings. In the final term, students complete an essay-based comprehensive exam. MPA candidates can also pursue a concurrent graduate certificate in public administration, nonprofit management, or city management.
Applying to Villanova
Prospective learners must submit an online application, three recommendation letters, a resume, an essay, a goal statement, and an official transcript request authorization.
Program at a Glance
7. University of Southern California
|Private university in Los Angeles, CA, accredited by WSCUC and NASPAA|
At its founding in 1880, USC enrolled only 53 students. Today, the university's total student population stands at 46,000, including 19,500 undergraduates and 26,500 graduate and professional learners.
USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy delivers a flexible and rigorous online MPA program. Enrollees participate in live lectures and discussions conducted over videoconferencing. Alumni cohort coaches provide guidance through the intricacies of graduate-level studies. Students also enjoy access to career services, technical support, and academic resources.
Comprising 24 core units and 16 elective units, the MPA curriculum fosters institutional, organizational, and analytical competencies. Two on-campus residencies afford the opportunity to network and collaborate with faculty and cohort members. Students can tailor their elective choices to earn an additional graduate certificate in public policy or city and county management.
Applying to USC
In addition to an online application, students must submit a resume, transcripts, a statement of purpose, and three recommendation letters. They must hold a bachelor's degree and complete social science prerequisites. USC does not require GRE or GMAT scores for May 2021 cohort applicants.
Program at a Glance
8. San Diego State University
|Public university in San Diego, CA, accredited by WSCUC and NASPAA|
Established in 1897 as a teacher training facility, SDSU now offers a variety of degree programs. The university's mission embraces global problem-solving through exemplary academics, research, and service.
SDSU's School of Public Affairs has offered an MPA program for almost 50 years. The fast-track online program admits applicants with managerial experience in public administration and related fields. Designed to accommodate working professionals' schedules, coursework features asynchronous lectures and assignments. Two on-campus experiences bookend the curriculum.
Degree-seekers apply advanced research and analytical skills in a capstone research project. They present their findings to a panel of faculty and public administration professionals.
Applying to SDSU
Prospective students must submit an application, two recommendation letters, official transcripts, an internship waiver (if applicable), a resume, and a statement of purpose.
Program at a Glance
9. Marist College
|Private university in Poughkeepsie, NY, accredited by MSCHE and NASPAA|
Founded in 1905 as a men's seminary, Marist operates today as a coeducational, nonsectarian institution with campuses in New York and Florence, Italy. The college offers 47 undergraduate majors and 15 graduate programs to over 6,000 students.
Marist's MPA program offers a customizable degree to fit students' schedule needs and professional interests. The program features hybrid and fully online classes, and students can enroll full or part time. Enrollees with adequate experience can opt out of internship requirements and some foundational courses. Concentrations in public management, ethical leadership, analytics, nonprofit management, and healthcare administration allow students to tailor their degree to their career goals.
MPA candidates build professional relationships through in-person and virtual networking events, conferences, and competitions. The college's management school, career services center, and alumni volunteers provide assistance with job placement.
Applying to Marist
Interested students must submit an application, a resume, a personal statement, and unofficial transcripts. Marist requires GRE scores for some applicants. Students may apply for summer, fall, or spring entry. Accepted students must submit official transcripts.
Program at a Glance
10. Georgia College and State University
|Public university in Milledgeville, GA, accredited by SACSCOC and NASPAA|
In 1891, the first Georgia College students attended classes in a building freshly constructed on the previous site of the Georgia State Penitentiary. Today, the school educates over 6,600 learners in this unique historic location.
Housed in the Department of Government and Sociology, Georgia College's online MPA program caters to practicing public sector employees. Enrollees learn alongside cohort peers and network with industry professionals.
In addition to a core curriculum covering public administration fundamentals, the program offers an array of electives exploring topics such as environmental policy and intergovernmental relations. A rotating special topics course addresses current issues in the field. Students can conclude their studies with a six-credit thesis or a three-credit capstone project.
Applying to Georgia College
Students must submit an online application, official transcripts, recommendation letters, and a resume. Prospective learners must hold a bachelor's degree and a minimum 2.75 GPA. Georgia College requires GRE, MAT, or GMAT scores for applicants with GPAs below 3.0.
Program at a Glance
What to Expect From Public Administration Master's Programs
Most master of public administration programs take two years of full-time study to complete. Some institutions offer accelerated options for candidates with existing graduate degrees and/or extensive relevant experience. In these cases, degree-seekers can graduate in as little as one academic year.
As a terminal designation, the MPA is the highest degree a public administrator can hold. Therefore, learners should expect intensive and challenging curricula that include required courses, specialized electives, and culminating experiences like capstones or thesis projects. Most programs cover about 60 credits, or 20 courses of academic requirements.
Admission standards vary among schools, but candidates should hold at least a four-year bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. Many of the best MPA programs accept applicants from all academic backgrounds, but the social sciences generally provide the most relevant foundational knowledge. Most schools require GRE scores, though their performance expectations usually put more emphasis on the examination's qualitative sections.
A growing number of institutions offer fully online MPA programs free of campus presence requirements. Degree-seekers who prefer traditional learning also have the option of campus-based programs and hybrid programs that blend the physical and virtual classrooms.
Public Administration Degree Options
MPA and MPP degrees are the two main degree options for graduate students interested in public policy. Both designations develop professional proficiencies in policy-based governance, but they differ in their respective emphases. MPP degrees typically explore the theory behind policy design, while MPA degrees cover the practical application of those theories.
Career goals should inform your program choice. If you prefer to work in policy research and design, an MPP may align more closely with your goals. The MPA makes a better match for those aspiring to roles involving management, human resource allocation, and public interface duties.
Some schools offer dual degree paths that compress the typical graduation timelines for students with complex professional ambitions. These include programs that combine MPA degrees with law credentials like the juris doctor or master of law. Learners can also pursue dual-degree MPA/MBA programs, which empower professionals to move between the public and private sectors.
Popular MPA Courses
As they research programs, aspiring MPA students find that schools offer a diverse selection of courses. While the respective curricula of various MPA programs cover the same general topics and themes, individual classes vary significantly from one school to the next.
The following information summarizes a cross-section of the types of classes you can expect to encounter in traditional and online master of public administration programs.
- – Policy Analysis: This course or its equivalent appears as a required class in practically all public administration programs. Drawing on the perspectives of various stakeholders, it guides students to develop systematic methods for analyzing policy proposals and identifying potential areas for policy reform.
- – Organizational Theory: A required course usually positioned in an MPA program's first semester, this class surveys historical and contemporary theories on organizational structure and governance. Coursework considers organizational theory from political, cultural, psychological, and managerial perspectives.
- – Government Finance: Usually offered as an elective in government-oriented specialization tracks, this course examines the various sources of government financial resources. Content uses economic modeling theory to explore government revenues, spending, debt, budgeting priorities, and resource allocation.
- – Nonprofit Resource Development: Schools usually offer this course as an elective in nonprofit-oriented specialization tracks. It teaches the fundamental strategies and techniques nonprofit organizations use to raise funds and distribute financial resources to various priorities.
- – Capstone in Public Administration: In their culminating experience, the public administration capstone, students apply their proficiencies to a targeted question or problem in policy analysis, implementation, or administration."
What Jobs Can a Public Administration Degree Get You?
A terminal MPA degree signals job-seekers' readiness for roles with strong upward mobility. The best online MPA programs deliver management and leadership training, plus insights into the practical applications of government policy. Given strong employer demand for candidates with these proficiencies and the relatively short time investment required to earn an MPA, this study path offers outstanding value.
Public administration programs are interdisciplinary by nature, equipping students with versatile, transferable qualifications.
Because MPAs are considered the public sector "gold standard," an online master of public administration can maximize career potential. Opportunities also extend well beyond government, encompassing roles with NGOs and in healthcare, education, and the nonprofit sector.
Popular jobs available to experienced professionals with MPA degrees include:
Urban or Regional Planner
Urban and regional planners formulate and implement policies that guide population growth management, land use, and infrastructure development.
- – Required Education: MPA plus specialized training from an accredited municipal or regional planning program
- – Job Outlook (2019-29): +11%
- – Median Annual Salary: $74,350
These experts apply academic theory and research to the practical function of political and government institutions.
- – Required Education: Master's degree or doctorate in public administration, public policy, or political science
- – Job Outlook (2019-29): +6%
- – Median Annual Salary: $122,220
Organizations in both the private and public sectors have increasing needs for management analysts. These professionals specialize in identifying and remediating organizational efficiency shortcomings.
- – Required Education: MPA and/or MBA degree
- – Job Outlook (2019-29): +11%
- – Median Annual Salary: $85,260
Selecting Your Master's in Public Administration Degree
The rankings list contained in this page offers valuable insights into the structural features and requirements of top programs. However, competitive rankings only offer a partial view of the depth and breadth of relevant study opportunities. They function best as a launching pad for further research and should not be considered a prescriptive end point that limits your options.
Every student has different interests, preferences, and learning goals, and a top-ranked program may carry prestige but fail to match your unique objectives. Thus, you should also consider other important program selection factors. Depending on your perspective, these may include:
- – The program's culture or orientation toward specific shared values, such as social justice or economic equity
- – School size and student-to-teacher ratios
- – Faculty members' diversity profiles and professional credentials
- – Program location: Those situated in or near seats of government typically offer valuable networking opportunities that can boost your job search
- – Costs and the availability of financial aid
No matter where you ultimately decide to pursue your MPA, ensure the school you attend holds valid national or regional accreditation. You can also look for specialized endorsements from the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, the nation's preeminent accreditor of MPA programs.
Why You Should Get Your MPA Online
Online delivery formats continue to make major inroads in higher education. Public administration counts among the many subjects particularly well-suited to the virtual classroom. Coursework maintains a lecture-heavy focus on applied theory, making distance learning an appealing alternative to physical attendance.
The key benefit of an online master of public administration derives from its scheduling flexibility. Degree-seekers do not adhere to rigid class schedules, as asynchronous online learning facilitates an "anytime, anywhere" approach to learning. Students can create their own schedules and attend virtual classes at their convenience.
Earning an MPA online can also help reduce costs. Many schools offer competitive tuition rates to online learners, and enrollees can avoid the costs of traveling to campus or moving to a new city.
Online programs also maximize educational options, allowing learners to enroll in programs at faraway schools that might otherwise be out of reach.
Several caveats counterbalance these advantages. Online learning demands high levels of self-discipline and independence. Learners who prefer in-person interaction should consider hybrid programs, which combine virtual and physical learning formats.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is an MPA worth it?
Labor market experts and employers widely consider the MPA the most useful and versatile professional credential for public servants and government administrators. An MPA degree grants access to roles with more responsibility and better pay, optimizing the student's potential return on investment.
What can I do with a master's in public administration?
MPA degrees qualify job-seekers for management and executive roles with local, state, and federal government agencies. They also lead to extensive job opportunities in the nonprofit sector, philanthropy, and with national and global NGOs.
What is a master's in public administration?
A MPA is the equivalent of an MBA for the public sector. This terminal degree is the preferred credential for those seeking management-level careers in public service and government.
Is an MPA or MBA better?
If your career plans include roles in government, public service, or the nonprofit sector, an MPA degree delivers more utility. MBA degrees focus more on the needs of private, for-profit enterprises.