Compare the online Master of Public Policy to the MPA

In this article, we will cover what it means to get an MPP, where MPPs work, and the types of roles they play in shaping public policy and outcomes. There will be a quick lesson in public policy theory to show you the primary differences between an MPP and a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA). We’ll also discuss the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), and why prospective students should look for NASPAA-accredited MPP programs. Finally, we will share the details on three 100% online, NASPAA-accredited MPP programs from American University, Northwestern Univerity, and Oregon State. These well-regarded, flexible programs are all great options for prospective students seeking to take the next step in their career.

Under the public administration umbrella, a Master of Public Policy provides a higher-level education within the design and implementation of laws and regulations. The goal of public policy is to solve problems that are based in the community, such as setting restrictions and funding optimization projects. Being able to determine what needs to be accomplished within urban, suburban, and rural communities requires data collection and evidence-based analytical methods to determine its accuracy without any bias.

Online Master of Public Policy Degrees

Online MPP programs can typically be completed within a few years, though some universities will allow for an extended period of time for working professionals that have a very limited amount of time to take classes.

Depending on the university, course lectures will be offered in a live, synchronous format that may require student interaction, or an asynchronous format that can be viewed at anytime. Typically, coursework can be done on a student's own schedule, but they must show progression.

Especially for accelerated programs, there will be weekly assignment deadlines and quizzes or exams that are taken throughout the course.

What is an MPP?

An MPP stands for Master of Public Policy. MPP students are interested in analyzing public policies and creating solutions for pressing social problems. MPP graduates work on all types of policy issues, such as criminal justice, climate change, housing, immigration, and healthcare. One of the benefits of having an MPP is that the degree opens doors for you in so many sectors. Not only can you find MPP graduates in all levels of government, but you can also find them working for nonprofit organizations and private businesses. In some cases, an MPP is the first step into a public policy Ph.D. program.

What can you do with an MPP?

MPPs bring their research skills, policy expertise, passion, and creativity to solve increasingly complex policy problems. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, policy analysts frequently work in the following sectors:

  • The federal government
  • Local government**
  • State government**
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools
  • Private sector management

**This does not include hospitals or educational institutions.

MPP graduates can work anywhere in any position that requires expertise in a policy area and quality data analysis skills. You can find them serving in roles like:

  • Policy advocates
  • Communications strategists
  • Executive directors
  • Research consultants
  • Evaluation specialists
  • Legislative aides

With an MPP, you have the flexibility to choose what you want to work on and where you think you can make the most difference in the lives of other people.

Working in Public Policy

Educational programs will often oversee the evolution of public policy and the various changes that have taken place within human rights, climate change, and the economy.

They provide a number of theories, principles, and ethical courses to have a better understanding of policymaking. Public policy courses can typically be found when pursuing a Master of Public Administration, and it is sometimes offered as a specialization instead of a standalone program by a university.

Consider a Featured Online MPA Program


If you choose an MPP program, you will learn about all stages of the public policy process. However, your studies will focus on problem identification, setting the policy agenda, policy formation, and evaluation. If you are someone who enjoys developing communication strategies for advocacy or working with data to solve problems, the MPP could be an excellent fit for you.

If you choose an MPA program, you’ll likely spend most of your time learning how to effectively implement and manage public policies and programs (NASPAA cite). The MPA is a great choice for those who are interested in leading programs in nonprofit or government settings. While they are similar degrees, it is best to take some time to think about what parts of the policy process you enjoy the most and the type of skills you need to move your career forward.
There is good news for those who want it all; some programs do offer hybrid MPP/MPA programs. You can find descriptions of two of these programs below.

Why Consider a NASPAA-Accredited MPP?

NASPAA stands for the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration. NASPAA is the accrediting body for graduate degrees in public administration, public policy, and related fields. The organization approves programs from across the globe to “ensure excellence in education and training for public service” professionals. NASPAA only accredits graduate programs; bachelors’ programs are not eligible.

As a prospective student, you can think of NASPAA accreditation like an insurance policy. When you choose a program with NASPAA accreditation, you can be assured that the program has proven that they meet international standards for public policy graduates. In order to earn their accreditation, MPP programs must conduct a self-study that proves they meet the NASPAA standards:

  1. Managing the Program Strategically: This means that the program has a clear mission statement and has articulated its values as a policy program. The program also has specified measurable goals, objectives, and learning outcomes for their students. Often, you can find these learning objectives listed on the program’s website.
  2. Managing Governance with the Mission: This means that the program has the proper staffing and infrastructure to support their students. Accredited programs have at least five full-time faculty members that are responsible for developing the curriculum.
  3. Faculty Performance: MPP programs must show that they have hired qualified faculty members to lead the program and teach students. Programs also must show how they are addressing diversity and inclusion in their faculty recruitment process.
  4. Serving Students: Accredited programs have a clear student recruitment plan, clear admissions criteria, and sufficient support services for their students. Support services include career counseling, advising, and internship opportunities. Programs must also demonstrate how their student recruitment plans account for diversity and inclusion.
  5. Student Learning: The program addresses core competencies for public policy professionals (see Foundational Courses
  6. Matching Resources with the Mission: Accredited programs prove that they have the resources to fulfill its mission and goals, including proper funding, library services, information technology, and staff support. There must also be sufficient resources for continued program evaluation and improvement.
  7. Matching Communications with the Mission: MPP programs must have communication plans that show how they will share information with prospective students, current students, and faculty members.

After the self-study is complete (which can take up to three years!), MPP programs must prepare for a site visit by NASPAA. NASPAA will provide the program with feedback so that they can correct any outstanding issues before the accreditation decision. Again, as a prospective student, accreditation helps you fully understand your program’s expectations. Also, you can take comfort in knowing that the program you are interested in has enough resources and organizational capacity to deliver on its promises.

MPP Foundational Courses

A typical MPP curriculum includes foundational courses about public policy theories, policy analysis, and organizational theory. Since the MPP is more focused on research, students can expect to take a statistics course, learn about different research methods, and get some practice with program evaluation. In many cases, MPP programs will focus their core curriculum on quantitative data analysis. However, if you are interested in qualitative methods like interviewing or running focus groups, check the program’s elective courses to see if you have that option. Qualitative skills are just as critical in the public policy world as quantitative, and it is a bonus if you can get both skillsets under your belt. MPP programs may also ask students to complete an internship if they have limited or no professional work experience.

Finally, MPP programs require that a student complete a Master’s thesis or complete a capstone project to graduate. If you are required to write a thesis, you would complete this project on your own under faculty supervision. Capstones, on the other hand, are often group projects where a group of students conducts a policy analysis for an area government or nonprofit agency. Sometimes, programs will give students the option to complete a thesis or a capstone project.

Concentrations

Often, MPP programs will offer students the opportunity to specialize in a policy area. Sometimes, selecting a concentration is a requirement. When students choose a concentration, they typically complete 3-4 courses in the subject area of their choosing, like education policy, environmental policy, or public health. There are also joint degree programs available where students can earn an MPP along with another terminal degree like a law degree (J.D.) or a Master’s of Social Work (MSW).

If you already know what kinds of policy issues you want to work on, make sure the MPP program has a concentration that matches your interests. If you’re not sure yet, that’s okay, but still take the time to review them so that you are comfortable with your options down the line.

General Admissions Policies

Typically schools are looking for students who maintained a 3.0 GPA or higher during their undergraduate career. To apply for an MPP program, you should prepare to submit the following to the institution:

  • Official transcripts from all colleges and universities where you have taken a course
  • A current resume
  • Two or three letters of recommendations
  • A statement of purpose
  • GRE scores
  • English language proficiency scores for international students

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools are waving their GRE requirements, since many students cannot schedule a test because of public health concerns. Be sure to check the university’s website for the latest information about any standardized testing requirements.

NASPAA Accredited Online MPP Programs

There are only three MPP programs that are NASPAA-accredited and 100% online: American University, Northwestern University, and Oregon State University. In this section, we will take a look at each of these programs, highlight what makes them different from one another, and provide details about the application process.

American University

Based in Washington, D.C., it will come as no surprise that nearly 80% of all graduates from this Masters of Public Administration and Policy (MPAP) program work for the government. The MPAP is a hybrid option that combines the core curriculum of an MPA program and the curriculum for an MPP program into one degree. This combination could be a good fit for students who are equally interested in MPP and MPA programs, or students who are not sure which degree best meets their needs.

Several other factors make American a unique place to study, especially for prospective students who want a career in government. Besides being one of the top-ranked public affairs schools in the country, American University is also the #5 school for global policy and administration, #5 for most politically active students, and #3 for Presidential Management Fellow Semifinalists (PMF). The PMF is a prestigious two-year fellowship that trains students to become future government leaders and provides them with real-world federal experience. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management sponsors the PMF. Recently, two of American University’s MPAP students were selected to participate in this esteemed fellowship.

MPAP alumni have a 100% rate of post-grad employment, continued graduate education, or both six months after graduation. Recent statistics show that the class of 2019 works for for-profit institutions (24%), nonprofit institutions (31%), and government (43%). In these roles, over 55% of MPAP graduates earn over $60,000 a year. American University’s reputation as a leader in the public policy field, combined with its successful alumni, make the MPAP program an attractive option for students.

Core Curriculum Requirements

MPAP students must complete 33 hours of coursework and complete their practicum for three additional credits. American University has blended essential coursework from the traditional policy analysis curriculum with the necessary skills needed for program implementation and management. MPAP students are required to complete the following classes:

  • Foundations of Policy Analysis
  • Introduction to Public Administration and the Policy Process
  • Project Management
  • Legal Issues in Public Administration
  • Public Managerial Economics
  • Budgeting and Financial Management
  • Leadership in a Changing Workplace
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Foundations of Program Evaluation
  • Managing Human Capital Assets
  • Organizational Analysis
  • Capstone project

Not all MPP programs require students to take a course about legal issues. However, having some basic understanding of the law can be incredibly helpful for public policy analysts, so it is a plus that MPAP requires such a course. There are legal landmines in all areas of the policy process, and it may be easier to address these problems with a foundation in common legal principles.

Concentrations

Unfortunately, MPAP students cannot choose a concentration area like health care, environmental, or social policy. Since the core curriculum is packed with required courses from two different graduate degrees, it seems that there is no room to add any electives. In-person students do have the option of picking one of nine concentrations, such as educational policy, health policy, and nonprofit management. However, even without the options, online students can likely tailor their course assignments to fit their policy interests.

Typical standards for admissions to the program

If you wish to apply to the MPAP program, you will need to submit your official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, and a personal essay about your background and experience. Typically, American University does require GRE scores, but this requirement has been waived until Fall 2021 due to the pandemic. International students can submit the following test scores as proof of English proficiency:

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
  • Pearson Test of English (PTE)
  • Duolingo English Test

Always check the program website for the latest information on admission requirements and deadlines.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University, located in Evanston, IL, also offers a 100% online Master of Public Administration and Policy (MPAP) degree. Learning objectives for MPAP students include how to:

  • Ethically design public policies and programs
  • Be leaders in the implementation process
  • Evaluate whether or not their policy designs are effective

Graduates are also able to communicate clearly with all stakeholders and are sensitive to the sociopolitical cultures that can impact implementation.
What makes Northwestern unique is that it offers its students two concentrations in international affairs: global policy and global health. Prospective students who are interested in taking their work to the worldwide stage may want to consider Northwestern’s MPAP as an option.

Core Curriculum Requirements

MPAP students must take 13 courses. Similar to American University, Northwestern students must take foundational courses on the policy process, statistics, program evaluation, budgeting, and economics. Northwestern also requires MPAP students to study quantitative and qualitative research methods, public organizational theory, and a course in ethics and leadership. MPP programs usually have a strong focus on quantitative methods, so this presents a unique opportunity for students to get experience in mixed methods research.

MPAP students also have two options for their capstone project. First, students may work in a group on a policy analysis project for a client. If students prefer to work individually, then they can choose to complete a traditional Master’s thesis. Finally, for those with limited work experience, the program recommends completing an internship. Internships are not a requirement for graduation.

Concentrations

Online MPAP students are required to choose a concentration to fulfill their degree requirements. There are five concentration options to choose from:

  1. Public Administration: This concentration is for students who wish to pursue careers as managers at the local, state, or federal level. Course options include Behavioral Economics, Administrative Law, and Public Human Resources.
  2. Public Policy: This concentration is for students who want to learn about all of the factors involved in decision-making, agenda-setting, and policy formulation. Course options include Intergovernmental Relations, Regulatory Policy, and The Strategic Policy Environment.
  3. Global Policy: This is for students who are interested in working on issues that are relevant in international policy, such as achieving development goals and state-building. Course options include International Institutions, Global Policy Laboratory, and Global Economic Policy.
  4. Global Health: This is for students interested in improving health care access and outcomes across the world. According to the website, global health students “navigate the legal and regulatory aspects of health-related industries around the world and evaluate cultural and ethical considerations inherent in global health contexts.” Given the COVID-19 crisis, i is likely that there will be a need for global health experts. Course options include Foundations of Global Health, Global Health Initiatives, and Global Health Systems.
  5. Data Analytics: This concentration is for students who wish to specialize in advanced statistical techniques for policy analysis. Course options include Data Modeling for Supervised Learning, Data Visualization, and Decision Analytics.

Admission Requirements

As with most other programs, Northwestern requires prospective students to submit their official transcripts, resume, and two letters of recommendation. However, Northwestern also has two separate writing requirements. The first is a statement of purpose, which should describe how the MPAP program will help you achieve your career goals. The statement of purpose is short; it should only be 300-550 words.
The second writing requirement is a writing sample. Prospective students have the option of submitting academic papers, work-related memos, or an essay about a public policy problem. All writing samples should be no more than ten pages. However, the requirements for each type of sample are slightly different from one another:

  • Academic papers must have a clear thesis, contain a persuasive argument in favor of the thesis, and acknowledge contrary opinions against the thesis. Also, academic papers must include proper citations.
  • Work-related memos must identify the policy issue and provide an analysis of why the issue matters. There should also be an explanation about what the policy problem means for your organization. Memos should also contain actions and recommendations for the next steps.
  • Essays must clearly describe an issue that you believe is critical for your community, state, or country and present what actions you would take to address the problem. Essays should include research that supports the recommendations.

International students can submit one of the following as proof of English language proficiency:

  • A Bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college or university
  • A course-by-course evaluation of classes taught in English
  • TOEFL iBT scores of at least 100
  • IELTS scores of 7.0 or higher

As always, check Northwestern’s website to get the latest information on admissions requirements and application deadlines.

Oregon State University

Calling all environmentalists: Oregon State University’s online MPP program could be an excellent choice for you. OSU is one of a handful of universities with Sea, Space, Sun, and Land Grant designations. These federal grants support OSU’s research and education outreach programs in marine life and conservation, biofuels, clean water, and more. The MPP program works with scientists across the university to integrate the most up-to-date knowledge into students’ studies.
OSU’s students are professionals who are either already working in the public or nonprofit space or want to transition from the private sector to public service. The online and in-person programs have the same course requirements.

Curriculum Requirements

The OSU MPP program requires students to take 46 credit hours of coursework. Most of the core courses are similar to what you may find in other programs: public policy theory and analysis, research methods, and economics, to name a few. There is also a microeconomics requirement for students who do not have a background in this area. But there are several unique aspects to OSU’s curriculum that merit attention.

First, OSU requires its MPP students to participate in a professional development seminar. During this one-credit course, students will complete their Individual Development Plans and learn about career opportunities that are available in the field. Students can use this time to tailor their IDPs to meet their interests and career goals. They will also learn more about issues of diversity and inclusions in the public policy field.
Also, students complete their Collaborative IRB Training Initiative (CITI) certificate and their Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) training as a part of the course. Both of these pieces of training are critical for students who wish to conduct research with human subjects. Students will also learn about issues of diversity and inclusion in the public policy field.

Interestingly, OSU allows students to choose between a quantitative methods course or a qualitative methods course as a part of the core curriculum.
Finally, OSU MPP students are required to complete the MPP essay, which is the equivalent of a Master’s thesis. Group capstone projects are not an option. There are examples of previous MPP essays on the program’s website. Projects from the class of 2020 include:

  • How states can increase access to farmers’ markets for low-income households
  • A program evaluation of California’s Clean Vehicle Assistance Program
  • Reducing noise pollution in Oregon cities and towns
  • How urban redevelopment programs impact housing instability

Concentrations

The OSU MPP offers four concentrations: energy policy, environmental policy, rural policy, social policy. Students need to take 16 credits worth of electives in their specialty area to have a concentration. Some concentrations have more course options than others within the public policy school. For instance, students who concentrate in environmental policy can choose from 12 course options, such as International Marine Policy, Policy and Law of Coastal Governance, and Environmental Sociology. Students in the Energy Policy concentration can choose from a list of seven courses, including the Politics of Climate Change, U.S. Energy Policy, and Energy and Society.

Students who choose the Rural Policy or Social Policy concentrations only have six course options. These include Society and Natural Resources, International Comparative Rural Policy, Global Food Politics, and Policy. However, rural policy is a rare concentration option in MPP programs, so having fewer course options may not be a hindrance here. Finally, students interested in social policy only have four course options: Criminology, Sociology of Education, Leisure and Culture, and Social movements.

MPP students can choose to take electives from OSU’s other online graduate certificate programs. There are 14 certificate options available, including:

  • Business Analytics
  • Data Analytics
  • Fisheries Management
  • Forests and Climate Change
  • Geographic Information Science
  • Public Health
  • Sustainable Natural Resources
  • Urban Forestry
  • Water Conflict Management
  • Wildlife Management
  • Collaborative Governance
  • Gerontology (the study the aging process and how it impacts individuals and society)

The majority of the OSU certificate programs are focused on environmental issues. If you are interested in environmental policy, OSU could be a great match for you. However, this is also an example of why it is crucial to review program concentrations carefully. A student who wants to learn about issues like education policy, Medicaid, or criminal justice may have a harder time finding courses that match their interests.

Admission Standards

Admissions standards for OSU follow along with other MPP programs. Prospective students should submit official course transcripts, three letters of recommendation, a resume, and a statement of purpose. The statement of purpose needs to include your history of public service work any volunteer activities. If you were involved in any extracurricular activities during your undergraduate career, include those as well.

Like the other programs, OSU has waived their GRE requirements due to COVID-19. International student requirements include TOEFL or IELTS scores. In general, OSU is looking for TOEFL PBT scores above 550, TOEFL iBT scores above 80, IELTS scores above 6.5, or Duolingo scores above 100. International students can waive this requirement if:

  • Your undergraduate degree is from a predominantly English-speaking country
  • Your GRE verbal scores are above 500
  • The chair of the MPP program interviews you and signs off on a waiver.

As always, check the program’s websites for the most up-to-date information about admission requirements.

DePaul University

The College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences provides a Master of Public Policy that can be completed in just over two years with courses offered both online and in the evening hours at the Loop Campus. The curriculum consists of 10 core courses and 3 additional electives to specialize the degree, with courses involving healthcare, international development, and or an internship if an adequate amount of prior work experience is not reached. Admission into the online program is only available in the fall. In addition to the Master’s degree, graduate certification can be earned in Community Development and Metropolitan Planning and Development.

Requirements to get into the Master’s program include obtaining a Bachelor’s degree and submitting an online application, updated resume, and two-page personal statement that details career goals, work experience, and academic performance. DePaul utilizes both asynchronous and synchronous learning through the Desire2Learn course management system and live video classes with Zoom. For online exclusive students, there are no on-campus requirements, but there is a mandatory live session at the beginning of the course.

Public Policy Course Examples

Course Description

Policy Design and Analysis

Explores the outcomes of government policy and specifically what a policy analyst is responsible for when creating policy framework. Determine what the potential benefits and consequences are of implementing certain policies with real-world examples, and develop skills in social discourse when analyzing certain policies.

Quantitative Methods

Students analyze and interpret statistical analysis through the use of mathematics, sampling, theories, and hypothesis. These methods focus on the collection of data and the creation of models that depict the data that is found. This is in contrast to qualitative methods, which attempts to find the reasoning behind why the data is represented or trending a certain way.

Economics

Public policy degrees will typically explore some form of economic studies, such as microeconomics. This focuses on the supply and demand of individuals, or specific companies or organizations. There is some overlap with macroeconomics, such as how inflation can impact living expenses and the cost of goods. An example of public policy in economics is determining affordable housing guidelines for low-income workers.

Metropolitan Planning

Typically offered as an elective course or area of emphasis, these classes provide a look into how urban areas are maintained and improved. Explores the evolution of community planning and all the social, economic, and environmental affects it can have. Specializations in this topic will go further into residential development, land use, transportation issues, management issues surrounding metropolitan growth in developing countries, and more.

Budgeting and Financial Management

Understand the processes and concepts around budgeting in the public sector with topics on federal and state debt, strategic planning, and the difference between spending methods (like mandatory and discretionary). Typically, this course will examine financial management in many areas at various levels, whether it is local, state, or federal.

What’s the Difference between an MPP and MPA?

To explain the differences between the two degrees, let’s do a quick lesson in public policy theory. One of the more traditional ways to think about how public policy works is the public policy cycle. Very simply, the public policy cycle breaks down the process into five separate stages:

  1. Problem identification: what is the policy problem you want to solve? What inequities or injustices do you see that must be addressed immediately?
  2. Agenda-setting: how do you convince policymakers that they should solve this problem quickly? Do you use media attention, lobbying, petitions, or some other methods?
  3. Policy formation and adoption: what is your proposed policy change to fix the problem, and who needs to approve your new policy? Think local zoning boards, state legislatures, or Congress.
  4. Implementation: which institution is responsible for carrying out the policy change? Is it a state agency, nonprofit organization, or some other kind of institutional partnership?
  5. Evaluation: did the policy change solve the problem that you wanted to fix? If not, what should happen next?

Career Opportunities

Survey Researcher

Uses a quantitative or qualitative method in collecting data in a variety of categories in the government, healthcare, educational sector, and more. These researchers will determine what is the method of interaction, be it interviewing specific candidates, holding a focus group, or sending a broad survey across a segment of people. In some instances, they will observe interviews in order to gather data or determine that surveys are properly and accurately representing information. Median average salary is around $54,237 across the United States according to PayScale.

Policy Analyst

Influence and make policy decisions for the government or an organization, researching and compiling various data sets and presenting recommendations. Other duties can include budgeting, what effects implementing certain policies can have on a community, and working directly with vendors. Typical skills needed are being comfortable with working with mathematics and analytical models, so a specialization in that department toward a Master’s degree is recommended.

Campaign Manager

Coordinates a program that focuses on policy issues for a particular company or organization to improve their public perception. This job requires strategic thinking, organizing, and plenty of community engagement in order to succeed, which are skills taught in a variety of public policy courses. On the management level, an average salary across the United States is around $114,800 according to BLS.gov.