Earning a Master’s in Public Administration Online

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for social and community service managers is projected to grow by 18% between 2016 and 2026 — more than double the national average for all jobs. These positions also offer above-average salaries. While the median salary for all occupations in the U.S. approached $38,000 in 2017, the median salary for government or nonprofit administrators exceeded $64,000 that year.

To qualify for the most senior and lucrative of these positions, you need a master's degree. This page offers an overview of public administration online master's programs, including information related to admission requirements, curricula, and financial aid.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Public Administration?

Many students choose to earn an online MPA directly after completing their undergraduate studies. Doing so helps graduates qualify for mid-level jobs with minimal professional experience. Alternatively, others enter graduate school after working as a government or nonprofit administrator for several years. Earning an advanced degree positions these students for leadership and specialized roles.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Public Administration?

Pursuing Specialization

Through formal concentrations and elective coursework, online MPA programs allow students to specialize in a facet of public or nonprofit administration. For example, if you hope to become a city manager, you may take classes in subjects like sustainable community development, transportation policy, and public finance. Instead, if you hope to become the executive director of a nonprofit organization, you may take courses in program evaluation, human resources management, and fundraising.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Earning an online MPA helps you advance your career. According to the BLS, many top executives in the public sector hold a master's in public administration, law, or a closely related field. An advanced degree may also allow you to negotiate a higher salary. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce reports that individuals with a bachelor's in public administration earned a median salary of $62,000 in 2015, while those with a master's earned a median salary of $75,000.

Online Learning Technology

Students who attend public administration master's programs online develop technical skills they can use throughout their career. For instance, if you coordinate the activities of an international organization, you benefit tremendously from understanding how to use remote communication and collaboration tools. Familiarity with online learning technologies also makes it easier to participate in certain professional development opportunities.

Prerequisites for Online Public Administration Programs

While the prerequisites for public administration master's programs vary, the list below describes common admission requirements. Students can contact individual schools for specific details.

    • Work Experience: Most MPA online programs do not require professional experience. However, you may improve your odds of admission by pointing to prior work in the public or nonprofit sectors, even as an intern or volunteer. Working for several years at a government agency or community organization can also make it easier to choose a specialization that interests you.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Many graduate schools ask applicants to submit results from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE attempts to assess your verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and writing skills. While schools generally do not require a minimum score, you may want to consider retaking the exam if you score below 150 on either the verbal or quantitative sections. GRE scores remain valid for five years.
    • Coursework: To apply to most MPA programs, you need a bachelor's degree. Some programs also require students to have earned a minimum 2.5 GPA during their undergraduate studies. Although not always required, you may benefit from taking college-level courses in areas like economics, political science, and statistics.
    • Recommendations: Plan to submit as many as three letters of recommendation from former teachers, employers, and community leaders. Choose individuals who can speak to your past experience and future potential, but avoid asking friends or family members. Give your recommenders at least two months to write and submit your letters.
    • Essays: Some MPA programs may ask students to write a brief essay outlining their qualifications, as well as their academic and professional goals. These essays usually run about 1,000 words in length. Focus on what makes you unique as a candidate, and consider asking a friend or colleague to review your essay before submitting it.
    • Interviews: Online programs do not usually require prospective students to participate in admissions interviews as part of the application process. However, if requested, an interview allows you to further emphasize your strengths and provide additional context to any potential weaknesses in your application, such as low GRE scores.
    • International Students International students must meet the same admissions requirements as U.S. residents. However, they may also need to demonstrate English proficiency by submitting results from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. In addition, students should make sure to confirm that their target graduate program recognizes the accreditation held by their undergraduate institution.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration?

The median salary for social and community service managers in 2017 was just over $64,000. The lowest 10% of earners made slightly less than $40,000, while the highest 10% commanded salaries approaching $110,000.

Generally, individuals with more experience and education receive higher pay. Specializing in certain fields can also improve your earning potential. For example, the median salary for medical and health service managers was $98,350 in 2017.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Public Administration Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Social and Community Service Managers

Median Pay: $64,100

Job Growth: 18%

Social and community service managers lead government agencies and nonprofit organizations. They create budgets, generate revenue through fundraising and public financing, oversee staff and volunteers, and evaluate services. Many senior-level positions require a master's degree in public administration or a closely related field.

Urban and Regional Planners

Median Pay: $71,490

Job Growth: 13%

Urban and regional planners develop land-use plans to help communities address their needs. For example, a planner in a rural community may work to spur development to attract economic opportunity, while a planner in a more urban area may focus on preserving green space and reducing sprawl.

Fundraising Managers

Median Pay: $111,280

Job Growth: 10%

Fundraising managers help nonprofit organizations generate revenue to achieve their missions. Some focus on raising money from institutional sources by applying for grants from foundations, corporations, or government agencies. Others specialize in working with individual donors by building and maintaining relationships through events, face-to-face meetings, and ongoing communication.

Administrative Services Managers

Median Pay: $94,020

Job Growth: 10%

Administrative service managers perform many of the same functions as social and community service managers, though they tend to work at for-profit companies. Some firms seek to generate profit while advancing the public good, like renewable energy companies.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nontraditional Careers for Public Administration Graduates

The best online MPA programs equip students to find work in a variety of industries. For example, coursework in personnel management prepares you for human resource roles in public and private sectors. The table below details four nontraditional careers sometimes pursued by MPA graduates.

Career Stats Description

Survey Researchers

Median Pay: $54,270

Job Growth: 2%

Survey researchers collect and analyze data. For example, they may poll an organization's employees about skill gaps to help design training programs. They may also conduct political polling to guide a candidate's messaging and policy positions. Most of these roles require a master's degree or higher.

Skills Overlapped: research and analysis; survey design; communication

Political Scientists

Median Pay: $115,110

Job Growth: 3%

Political scientists study political and governmental systems. Many serve in academia, while others work for government agencies, labor organizations, political parties, or specific political candidates. Political scientists need at least a master's, though many hold a doctorate in a field like public administration.

Skills Overlapped: quantitative and qualitative research; policy analysis; communication

Management Analysts

Median Pay: $82,450

Job Growth: 14%

Management analysts work to improve an organization's efficiency. They often interview employees and stakeholders to better understand challenges and opportunities. They also analyze financial and programmatic data. Analysts present their findings and recommendations to senior leaders.

Skills Overlapped: organizational and financial analysis; interpersonal communication; time management

Human Resources Managers

Median Pay: $110,120

Job Growth: 9%

Human resources managers recruit, hire, and train new staff members. They may also resolve disputes between employees and management, oversee benefits programs, and lead negotiations. Human resources professionals in the public sector benefit from knowing how to work effectively with labor unions.

Skills Overlapped: decision-making; interpersonal communication; policy and program analysis and development

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for an Online Master’s in Public Administration

The cost of an online MPA varies by program. Earning your master's at a public college or university, for example, typically costs less than pursuing an advanced degree at a private institution. Students who prefer to study on campus may also need to pay for room and board or transportation.

To begin your search for financial support, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal grants, work-study opportunities, and low-interest student loans.

Scholarships for Online Public Administration Master's Students

After determining whether you qualify for federal aid, research private scholarships to finance your degree. To improve your chances of receiving an award, identify programs that cater to students from your background or region. The list below discusses five scholarship programs for public administration students.

What to Expect from a Master’s-Level Online Public Administration Program

Most online MPA programs begin with foundational coursework in areas like public finance, personnel management, and policy analysis. Students can then personalize their studies by choosing a formal concentration or elective classes in subjects such as healthcare, international governance, and youth development.

Many programs require students to complete a capstone project to develop practical experience in public administration. Alternatively, more research-oriented programs may instead require students to write a thesis.

Major Milestones

  1. Acceptance to a Program

    Roughly two years prior to graduation

    After being admitted to a program, contact your school's financial aid office to learn about scholarship and grant opportunities. You can also contact your adviser to begin designing a course of study.

  2. Completing Foundational Coursework

    Roughly one year prior to graduation

    Most students complete foundational coursework in the first year of their graduate studies. If you do not hold a bachelor's in public administration or a closely related field, you may also need to take prerequisite classes in economics, political science, and statistics.

  3. Completing Elective Coursework

    Roughly six months prior to graduation

    As you progress through your studies, you can choose elective classes to better prepare for specialized roles in public administration. For example, if you hope to become the head of an environmental organization, you can take policy courses in sustainability, land use, and renewable energy.

  4. Completing a Capstone Project

    One month prior to graduation

    Many programs require or encourage students to complete a capstone. These projects allow you to apply your learning to a practical public administration issue. To do this, online students may need to partner with a local nonprofit organization or government agency.

  5. Completing Thesis

    One month prior to graduation

    If you plan to continue your education at the doctoral level, or if you hope to start a career in a more research-oriented discipline, you may choose to follow a thesis track. After taking courses in methods and design, students can perform original research or analyze existing data. Learners then present their findings in the form of a written thesis.

  6. Meeting All Final Graduation Requirements

    Directly prior to graduation

    Make sure to confirm with your school's registrar that you have met all of your program's graduation requirements, settled any outstanding bills, and joined your school's alumni association.

Coursework

While the courses in an online MPA program vary by school, certain aspects of curricula may overlap. The list below describes five common courses found in these programs.

Principles of Public Administration

This course introduces students to the core concepts and theories they will encounter throughout their graduate studies. Topics covered include the history of public administration in the U.S., fiscal planning, organizational assessment, and policy analysis.

Public Policy Analysis

Crafting effective public policy requires the ability to use data to drive decision-making. In this class, students explore the policy development process, learn how to apply analytical frameworks to policy issues, and grapple with ethical issues that occur when creating and executing public policy.

Finance and Budgeting for the Public Sector

To succeed as a leader in the public sector, you must hold a sound understanding of financial practices. Students in this class examine subjects like auditing practices, tax systems, budgetary reform, and public revenue streams.

Human Resource Management

The ability to hire, train, and retain staff plays a key role in public administration. Through readings and case studies, this class teaches students how to manage conflict, design and assess professional development programs, and promote diversity within an organization.

Applied Research and Evaluation Methods

This course focuses on fundamental quantitative and qualitative research skills. Students examine common threats to the validity of data, use statistical analysis software, and critically evaluate public administration research. Though beneficial to all students, this class particularly benefits those on a thesis track.

Degree Timelines

Many online programs use self-paced learning, meaning you can advance through your coursework at your own pace. While appealing to working professionals who want to earn their degree as quickly as possible, self-paced learning requires exceptional self-discipline and time-management skills.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

4 years

Part-time students usually take about two classes — or roughly six credits — per semester. In asynchronous programs, students can watch lectures, complete assignments, and take exams on their own schedules, making these programs ideal for individuals balancing their studies with a full-time job or family responsibilities.

Full-Time

2 years

Full-time students typically take four classes each semester and graduate in two years. Full-time study often allows learners to take advantage of more experiential and extracurricular learning opportunities, like internships, discussions, and student groups. Full-time students may struggle to work more than part time while enrolled in school.

Accelerated

1 year

Accelerated formats enable students to progress through a program faster than traditional formats. Additionally, if you boast several years of experience in public finance, you may be able to test out of some foundational classes. Students following accelerated tracks may not enjoy access to the same support as those who study as part of a cohort.

Licenses and Certifications

Generally, government and nonprofit administrators do not need a license to practice, although some roles in education — such as working as a superintendent — may require state-level licensure.

While a master's degree qualifies you for many senior-level positions, certification programs allow you to demonstrate specialized expertise and a commitment to professional development. Certifications may also help you qualify for a promotion or negotiate a higher salary.

    • Certified Public Manager: To qualify for this certification, you must hold at least 300 hours of professional development study in a program accredited by the National Certified Public Manager Consortium. Candidates should also be well-versed in topics such as organizational integrity, leading people, and systemic integration. Certification costs $700.
    • Certified Nonprofit Professional: Offered by the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, this credential helps prepare individuals for leadership roles in the public sector. Interested professionals take courses in cultural competency, volunteer management, and sustainable program design. The program costs $2,725.
    • Certified Fund Raising Executive: This certification demonstrates knowledge of fundraising best practices and a commitment to a code of professional ethics. To become certified, you must submit an application detailing your experience as a development professional and pass an exam. Initial certification costs $875 and recertification costs $150 every three years.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Joining a professional organization can help you broaden your professional network and stay updated on the latest research and trends in public administration. Professional groups may host regional events and national conferences, offer online and in-person training opportunities, and advertise job openings. Some organizations serve traditionally underrepresented professionals in the field, such as public administrators of color. The list below details prominent professional organizations for government and nonprofit leaders.

  • American Society for Public Administration: ASPA works to advance the art, science, teaching, and practice of public and nonprofit administration. It publishes a scholarly journal, organizes an annual conference, offers scholarships to aspiring public administrators, and maintains an online career center.
  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management: In addition to its annual research conference, APPAM disseminates public policy news, shares resources on topics like good governance and public personnel management, and issues awards to recognize exemplary public servants.
  • National Forum for Black Public Administrators: Founded in 1983, NFBPA represents the interests of Black leaders in state and local governments. Members can network and collaborate at an annual forum or through online affinity groups. The group also offers scholarships to Black students majoring in public administration.
  • National Academy of Public Administration: This organization brings together and shares the expertise of government officials and prominent scholars to help inform the work of public administrators. It convenes working groups in areas such as intergovernmental systems and technology in government.
  • Association of Fundraising Professionals: AFP offers a variety of resources to professional fundraisers in the nonprofit sector. It commissions research reports on topics like development software and philanthropic trends, establishes and enforces a code of conduct for its members, and administers two formal certification programs.
  • Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education offers grants, fellowships, work-study opportunities, and student loans. Its website features information related to applying for public and private forms of aid and how to prepare for college.
  • Harvard Kennedy School Policy Center: The HKS Policy Center collects research from Harvard faculty and doctoral students on topics related to public administration, including public finance, community development, and environmental sustainability.
  • Public Management Research Association: An invaluable resource for public administration students, PMRA hosts all of the articles from its two scholarly journals on its website. These journals cover subjects like crisis management, smart cities, and public sector innovations.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Public administration students and professionals need to know how to write well to succeed at the highest level. Purdue's online writing lab offers detailed tips on writing research papers, crafting cover letters, and drafting policy memos.
  • American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees: AFSCME represents more than one million public sector workers across the country. The union offers a wealth of resources for recent graduates seeking work in state and local government.