How We Evaluated MPA Programs to Identify the Very Best

If you’ve got what it takes to get into public administration, then clearly you’re not one to back down from a challenge. Hunting for the right university for your MPA degree isn’t a very big lift compared to some of the big tasks you’re likely to take on over the course of your career, but it can seem pretty daunting when you first see all the options.

That’s why we’re here to help. Our lists of recommended programs are compiled in a meticulous fashion, editorially reviewed, and offered up to help you get a leg up on your search process without turning into a major time sink.

The criteria we apply to these programs are straightforward, but rigorous. In the same way you’ll be breaking down big issues in public affairs in a few years, we break down the strengths and weaknesses of various MPA (and related) degree programs: applying an objective and honest perspective to the problem, taking into account the varying perspectives on the field, student goals, and industry demands of the industry.

It’s a job for careful reviewers, who comb through school websites and outside agencies looking for detailed and current tuition data, graduation rates, and curriculum information. We look at publications by notable instructors, reviews by outside services like U.S. News & World Report, and comments from alumni.

Taking everything into account, we develop customized lists that go deeper and further than the basics: we identify not just the best programs, but we tell you exactly why they are the best, and how they compare.

We also feature master’s degrees in closely related fields, such as urban planning and development or public policy. Regardless, the criteria we’ve established for programs featured on this site broadly encompass the desirable assets and attributes of any master’s program that gives you the tools to run government, non-profit, or other policy and planning shops devoted to the public good.

General Criteria For Master’s in Public Administration (And Related) Degree Programs

A master’s degree in public administration carries a lot of weight in policy and administration circles. But you’ll definitely find that some schools are more respected than others. That comes down to these factors, each of which are weighed carefully by our reviewers to ensure that your pick will earn you respect and keep you in the running for the best positions after graduation:

General and Specialty Accreditation to Determine Base Academic Standards

Full accreditation is absolutely essential to our consideration of any MPA degree program. The accreditation process, by which independent, third-party evaluators examine both schools and individual degree programs, offers a critical check on the standards used to educate students.

For colleges, this process is handled by one of seven regional accreditation agencies recognized by Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). In a multi-year, multi-phase process, which includes both document and on-site reviews, they weigh schools on the basis of criteria such as:

  • Administration and policy development processes
  • Grading and academic standards
  • Curriculum development processes
  • Faculty hiring and review
  • Student acquisition and advertising

As comprehensive as this process can be, it’s subject-agnostic… no special relevance is given to the degree programs being evaluated. So we also go to another accreditation agency for the final word on public administration degrees: NASPAA, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration.

In addition to being recognized by CHEA, NASPAA is also a member of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA-USA). The network further evaluates public administration programs by seven core standards with specific public administration implications:

  • Managing the Program Strategically
  • Matching Governance with the Mission
  • Matching Operations with the Mission: Faculty Performance
  • Matching Operations with the Mission: Serving Students
  • Matching Operations with the Mission: Student Learning
  • Matching Resources with the Mission
  • Matching Communications with the Mission

Together with goals for continuous improvement and periodic on-site reviews, these standards result in only the most capable schools making it onto our lists.

First-rate Instructors With Academic and Real-World Experience

One of the bright spots of public administration programs is that there is a nearly constant exchange of personnel between active public service roles and academic positions. We look for programs that make the most of that exchange by hiring instructors with recent real-world experience alongside academic credentials that make their teaching skills sing. The combination of legitimate, on-the-ground experience and research and instructional talent is an easy way for a program to come out ahead in our listings.

Education at A Great Value

Although we consider program pricing in our lists, we don’t typically just pick the cheapest rates off a list and call it good. Instead, we look for value: the intersection of a thorough, comprehensive program at a fair price for the education it offers. That’s not always the least expensive program in a state, but it’s one where you are guaranteed to get your money’s worth.

Job Placement and Career Counseling Services At Every Career Phase

A good job in public administration can be hard to find, and so you want a college that will go the extra mile to help you find it. We look for schools that have a career counseling center that takes job placement seriously, not only providing you with lists of likely options, but assisting you in developing resumes, building your interviewing skills, and networking with the right people to make connections for your next position. The best programs keep those services on tap even after you graduate, providing a lifetime of benefits.

Teaches Broad Skillsets Across Planning, Policy, and Engagement

Although some public administration jobs involve relatively narrow silos of engagement, most are wide-ranging positions that demand expertise across a range of topics and function areas, from investigations to finance to policy to public relations. We look for programs that deliver the full range of tools that you may require across the span of a successful public administration career, even if you choose a more selective concentration option.

Real Research Opportunities in Public Administration

Studying active and past efforts in public administration is one of the primary ways that the field advances. Much of that research takes place in academia, and if you don’t pick a school that is both engaged in public administration research and serious about involving graduate students in those efforts, you’re in the wrong place. That’s why we’ve identified schools that have a real commitment to both driving research in the field forward and giving students the best opportunity to either take part or lead their own initiatives.

Internship Opportunities and Public Agency Partnerships

Most public administration programs offer internship placements, but you don’t want to end up in a back office at the Highway Department stapling driver’s license applications together for four months. We look for schools that take the development of agency partnerships seriously, and offer meaningful, impactful internship opportunities to students at agencies that are exciting and interesting to work with.

Leadership Skills Development At All Levels

One under-appreciated factor that determines success in public administration—both at the individual and societal levels—is leadership. This is as true at the top levels for agency heads as at is down in the trenches for program directors. That’s why we look for programs that cultivate leadership skills. These schools offer real opportunities for every student to stand up and take charge, and nurture and develop those skills throughout their programs.

Educational Outcomes That Produce Capable Administrators

The acid-test for any public administration program isn’t actually in the classroom; it’s out in the real world, where graduates have the opportunity to make their mark and change lives for the better. So we look at where graduates from these schools end up. The more graduates in high-ranking positions in public and non-profit agencies, or even out running their own program, the more likely the program is doing something right with their education.

Criteria for Online Master’s Degree Programs in Public Administration (And Related Fields)

Online programs are an increasingly important option for today’s students to earn a degree. With high-speed internet becoming ubiquitous and a generation of scholars equally comfortable conversing via screen as in-person, an online MPA program can offer tremendous flexibility at little cost. But there are serious challenges to building a solid online program, and we weigh such degrees with additional criteria to ensure they are every bit the equal of their traditional counterparts.

Top-flight Technology and Systems

The Learning Management System (LMS) backend selected by a school for its online courses can make or break the design. A solid implementation like Blackboard or Moodle allows seamless interaction between students and faculty, with multiple online communication modes and well-developed content delivery mechanisms. We look for schools that have developed either custom solutions or used off-the-shelf LMS software that will get out of your way and let you learn without having to first get a degree in computer science.

Deep and Constant Online Support Services

Because computers are computers, there are glitches. When the inevitable happens, you need official IT support you can count on. We select online programs at schools that offer expert and available support systems for remote students, with dedicated support staff and a network of experts for escalating hard-to-crack problems.

Course Delivery To Fit Your Schedule

Whether you are coming back to earn a degree after already launching your career or starting a master’s program fresh out of your bachelor’s program, there’s probably a reason you picked the online option: you need a master’s degree that you can earn on your own time, when it’s convenient for you to do it. Schools that offer their courses with maximum flexibility for students, both in the order in which classes can be taken and the times they can be viewed, come out on top in our evaluations.