Which Degree Is Right for You: Executive MPA, MPA, or an MBA?

Professionals looking to take the next step in their careers are often faced with the decision of which graduate degree path to pursue. In the fields of leadership and public service, particularly, a variety of degree options exist, and it is critical to fully understand how they compare before making the decision to apply.

As you weigh your options, be sure to consider both short- and long-term goals. What do you want to accomplish now, in five years, and throughout the course of your career? Your answers will likely inform whether you are best suited for an Executive MPA, MPA, or MBA degree program.

Take a look at how the three degree options compare and how each can benefit your career:

Executive MPA Overview

Designed for experienced public service professionals with substantial experience in public or nonprofit sector leadership positions. An Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) program helps you develop managerial leadership competencies to advance your career within government, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations.

MPA Overview

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) program helps early to midcareer professionals build the skills to run programs and implement policies for the public good. The degree concentrates on the management of public sector and nonprofit organizations while teaching core skills like public policy, budgeting and finance, and leadership.

MBA Overview

Designed for aspiring business leaders at all stages of their careers, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program provides a broad understanding of a wide range of business disciplines. As a student, you will learn foundational business practices, such as accounting, finance, marketing, and management.

Student Profile

Each of these degree paths provide tremendous opportunities for ambitious leaders who seek to drive change. Take a look at some of the key differentiating factors that may help you decide which path is right for you.

Executive MPA Students

Professional Experience:

At least five years of work experience in managerial positions with progressively greater levels of organizational responsibility, particularly in an area such as leading teams, budgeting, or strategic planning

Current or Desired Positions:

Elected officials, government managers, nonprofit leaders, private-sector executives looking to switch fields

Professional Goals:

Leading in a public setting, whether in a governmental, private, or nonprofit setting; developing the credentials to drive large-scale organization and policy change

Professional Differentiator:

Private and nonprofit sector organizations are attracted to EMPA graduates based on their managerial and analytic skills as well as their deep understanding of governmental and other public processes

MPA Students

Professional Experience:

Less than five years in the public, private, or nonprofit sector

Current or Desired Positions:

Public sector employees, nonprofit founders/employees, aspiring elected officials, policy analysts

Professional Goals:

Serving society and improving social conditions; developing core skills and connections in the public sector; participating in policy development and implementation

Professional Differentiator:

Service-oriented organizations value MPA graduates for their honed understanding of and skills in management, policy development, and analysis

MBA Students

Professional Experience:

Three-plus years in a full-time professional setting

Current or Desired Positions:

Mid- to upper-management roles in the public sector, entrepreneurs, and early executives

Professional Goals:

Building core business skills; learning to manage effectively in the private sector; becoming a strategic decision-maker

Professional Differentiator:

Businesses value MBA graduates for their broad understanding of various aspects of organizations as well as their ability to lead teams and maximize profit

Skills and Coursework

While all three degree paths place a heavy focus on leadership abilities, each focuses on a unique set of skills and specific coursework. A review can help you determine which is right for you:

Executive MPA Skills

An Executive MPA program is focused on helping those with prior experience in public service take the next step toward executive leadership. Coursework focuses on topics like organizational management, collaboration and conflict resolution, policy analysis, ethical decision making, economics, and financial management/budgeting in the context of public affairs. Some Executive MPA programs allow you to take specialized coursework in fields like policy implementation, data innovation, and public budgeting.

Specific skills include:

  • Analyzing and evaluating social and political systems
  • Managing human, financial, and information resources
  • Leading organization-wide strategic change
  • Planning and coordinating executive actions
  • Making and communicating informed decisions

MPA Skills

The MPA curriculum prepares professionals to become ethical leaders in the public, private, government, or nonprofit sectors. Coursework touches on topics such as public finance, human resources, research methods, institutional values, community development, and urban planning. Many programs allow students to specialize in niche public relations markets, such as environmental policy, international relations, local government, or public health.

Specific skills include:

  • Managing people, finances, and projects
  • Broad strategies in management, public policy, sociology, and law
  • Solving problems with immeasurable outcomes
  • Writing grant requests and public policy documents

MBA Skills

These programs offer broad foundational skills that are rarely tied to a single industry or sector. Coursework typically touches upon topics such as accounting, finance, marketing, human relations, operations management, economics, and business communications.

Specific skills include:

  • Managing people, finances, and projects
  • Marketing, finance, and consumer targeting
  • Detecting and driving efficiencies
  • Analytical thinking
  • Communicating strategy across teams

Commitments and Requirements

Every degree program is different in terms of the program length, time commitments, and admissions requirements you can expect. Below is a quick snapshot of the typical commitments and requirements that you might encounter for each degree option:

Executive MPA Requirements


  • 30 credits
  • 12–24 months to complete
  • Weekend/night/online classes for working professionals

Admissions Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • A minimum of five years of experience in managerial positions with progressively greater levels of organizational
  • responsibility, including experience with managerial leadership and/or public policy
  • GRE or GMAT test scores not required

MPA Requirements


  • 36–50 credits
  • One to four years to complete
  • Full time or part time

Admissions Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • GRE test scores traditionally required
  • Under five years of professional work experience

MBA Requirements


  • 48–62 credits
  • Two to five years to complete
  • Full time or part time

Admissions Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • GMAT or GRE test scores traditionally required
  • Two to five years of professional work experience

Why Executive MPA at Syracuse University?

If you are an experienced public servant and are looking to build the skills, connections, and credentials to drive large-scale change, an online Executive MPA program may be right for you. Learn more about the online Executive MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, ranked the nation’s top-ranked school for graduate education in public affairs by U.S. News and World Report.1

Request information to learn more about the online Executive MPA program from Syracuse University or contact an admissions counselor at 866-376-3167.

Get Started

The online Executive MPA program maintains the same commitment to quality of curriculum and student experience that have helped the Maxwell School develop a reputation as the premier school of public affairs in the nation. Take the first step toward joining our community of conscientious leaders by requesting more information.

1 Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs was ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report, 2021 Best Public Affairs Schools. (Accessed June 2020)arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference