If you’re finishing up an undergraduate degree or you’ve been in the workforce for a few years and want to increase your earning potential, you may want to look into an MBA or MPA degree. These degrees are both extremely valuable in today’s marketplace and can increase earning potential and open doors to elite jobs and promotions.

There are unique benefits to each of these different programs and each gives a distinct advantage depending on your chosen field.

What’s the Difference Between an MBA and MPA?

The most important question to ask yourself when deciding whether to enroll in an MBA or an MPA is “what field do I want to enter at the end of my program?”

The major difference between an MBA (Master of Business Administration) and an MPA (Master of Public Administration) is in the fields that they prepare students to enter. An MBA is geared towards students who want to enter the private sector and work for a for-profit corporation or business. If your interests lie in the public sector and you want to work for a government agency or non-profit company after graduation, an MPA might be more beneficial for your career. Generally, an MBA is more universally recognizable and can be applicable to jobs in both the public and private sector.

MBA vs. MPA: Entrance Requirements

The entrance requirements for a professional Masters-level program like an MBA or MPA are generally similar. Unlike other academic fields, where students are eligible to enter as soon as they’ve graduated university or college, entrance to an MBA or MPA program typically requires at least two years of work experience in a related field. Most MBA programs ask to see between two to five years of work experience before they will even consider admittance. Often, MBA programs will ask for undergraduate transcripts, as well as a resume and letters of reference from work contacts or professional mentors.

MPAs are usually a bit less stringent in their entrance requirements but will still ask to see evidence of previous work experience. However, it’s not necessarily required in the same way it would be if you were going into an MBA program. The major difference between MBA and MPA entrance requirements is the standardized test that you’re asked to take. Most MBA programs ask applicants to take the GMAT while MPA programs prefer to see GRE results. It does vary depending on where you’re applying, so make sure to double-check each school’s requirements thoroughly.

MBA vs. MPA: Program Formats

If you’re in the workforce or are mid-career, going back to school for an MBA or MPA degree is a great way to set yourself up for future success. However, it can be extremely difficult to figure out how to fit in a program like this when you’re already working 40 hours a week. Traditionally, both MBA and MPA programs are arranged over a two-year period and classes run year-round. For a lot of people, taking two years away from their job is not a viable option. Fortunately, there are lots of MBA and MPA programs that cater to busy executives who may not be able to go back to school full-time.

There are many flexible options offered by different MBA and MPA programs. If you’re going to remain at work, there are options like online classes — some schools offer MBA and MPA programs that are delivered almost entirely online — and part-time programs that offer classes at night and on weekends. Both MBA and MPA programs offer an executive option, which is aimed at potential students who have a bit more leadership experience and want a program that’s more tailored to their interests as a current or future executive. In addition to covering a more leadership-focused curriculum, executive MBA and MPA students take courses on an accelerated track, often while they maintain their job.

The typical executive MBA or MPA program is done over the course of 18 months rather than two years.

MBA vs. MPA: Course Details

The major difference between MBA and MPA programs is the coursework that each degree covers. MBA programs start with basic introductory courses like marketing, accounting, and human resources. Later in the program, students are encouraged to specialize in one of these areas and take more in-depth classes to build a more focused knowledge base. The focus of the MBA course of study is to teach students the basic principles of business, so they can succeed in a career in a for-profit corporation.

An MPA program generally covers many of the same topics as an MBA degree but approaches each subject from a non-profit or governmental point of view. While an MBA student may learn the basics of accounting for a business, an MPA student will instead study budgeting processes and public financing. After covering the basics, MPA students will generally specialize in a field like health policy, international relations, or the American political process.

In addition to teaching students about the core principles of business, both MBA and MPA programs are designed to teach students meaningful skills like research, program evaluation, and data analysis.

MBA vs. MPA: Career Opportunities

Although the format and even some of the course material is similar between MBA and MPA programs, the major difference is in the career prospects for graduates. An MBA degree is widely seen as universally applicable and is easily recognized and understood. Typically, people who graduate with an MBA go on to work in the private sector, taking high-level jobs in fields like finance, accounting, HR management, or marketing. When comparing someone with an MBA to someone with a BBA (undergraduate business degree), the person with the MBA degree has a much higher income potential, even if they’re coming into the workforce in an entry-level job. Some studies put the income potential of an MBA at an average of 38 percent higher than someone with a BBA.

In contrast, an MPA is designed to prepare students for leadership and executive roles in the public sector. There are fewer MPA programs out there (200 to the 450 MBA options offered in the United States today), so the degree isn’t as universally recognizable as an MBA. Additionally, students in MPA programs can generally expect to earn quite a bit less than MBA grads, since they typically take jobs in governmental agencies, public service, or non-profit companies. The starting salary for an MPA grad starts around $60,000.

If you want to increase your earning potential and improve your job and career prospects, going back to school for an MBA or MPA is a great choice. To pick the best program, think about the trajectory of your career, and which field will make you feel the most fulfilled. For some people, working in a large corporation and achieving huge personal successes is a dream that only an MBA can help fulfill. For others, giving back to their community through a leadership position in a non-profit or governmental organization is a life-long dream, and an MPA will help them get there.

Whichever program you choose, gaining knowledge through higher education can only benefit your long-term career.

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