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Want to make the world a better place? Think about getting an MPA

An MPA gives students the tools to be effective public servants.

With American workers changing jobs in record numbers in a phenomenon some call the “Great Resignation,” a lot of people are looking for or stepping into new roles. If your role is in government or in a nonprofit organization, and if you’re looking for additional training to improve your current job or start looking for a new one, then take a look at a University of Utah Master of Public Administration (MPA) program.

MPA students learn how to understand and administer the functions of governmental and non-governmental organizations that are accountable not to shareholders but to the people they serve.

If you’re looking for an at-your-own pace program, then the evening MPA may be right for you. Or if you have a few years of leadership experience behind you and you’re looking for a more intense, accelerated timeline, you might be more interested in the Executive MPA (XMPA) with cohorts beginning each August.

Learn more about the programs, application deadlines and more here.

We spoke with Rick Green, recently retired director of the U’s Programs of Public Affairs (including the MPA, XMPA, Master of Public Policy and Master of International Affairs and Global Enterprise programs) and Robert Forbis, current interim director, about what an MPA is and who can benefit from the program.

Many people have heard of an MBA, but are maybe less familiar with an MPA. What’s the difference between those two?

Green: When you’re working in public administration you’re working in government, in business with governments or perhaps in nonprofits. The world of government is vastly different from the marketplace. The government doesn’t have a bottom line. So our students are studying lots of law because everything in government operates by and through the authority of law. They have to understand the Constitution, regulation and basic rights and freedoms of human beings that limit the ways government can interact with them. They have to learn about budgets, which are entirely different from those in the business world. We have to teach them about relations with the public because the bottom line in government is responsiveness and responsibility to the public. Our curriculum thus looks very different from what you would see in a business program.

We have alums serving in the legislature. We have so many more working in the nonprofit sector, city government, county government, state government and nonprofits all over. We have police officers and police chiefs, we have fire chiefs, engineers, doctors, nurses, social workers… you name it!

Forbis: We have directors of state agencies, analysts everywhere, city managers, budget directors all across the state. We’ve kicked around an old saying in the program for a long time: “Our graduates run this state.”

Amidst “The Great Resignation,” why should people undertaking a job or a career change consider an MPA?

Green: Ours is a mid-career program, meaning that almost all students who come to us are already working in some professional or technical field. Many of them are already in government, about half of them are in the nonprofit world. A small percentage comes from the business world as well, because they’re bumping up against governments and need to understand more about them. So this is actually the perfect program for people who are looking to retool.

The MPA is the terminal professional degree for people who work in government administration and nonprofit administration. So this is an exceedingly valuable place to come, and they would be with other students of like mind who are there because they wanted something more than what they’ve gotten with their undergraduate degree or with other masters or doctorates in other fields.

Younger students, although fewer in numbers, typically are looking for ways to broaden their opportunities for all kinds of employment in the public and nonprofit sectors. They markedly increase their employability by getting our degree.

What does the XMPA program offer that’s different from other MPA programs at the U?

Green: Our evening program, which is the standard MPA, is offered for students to take as many courses as they can at their own pace. It generally takes them two and a half to three years to get through the program. You’re signing up for courses on any given night, typically for three-hour sessions from 6:00 to 9:00 PM. There’s no cohort to speak of. You’re just taking classes individually as you sign up for them.

The XMPA program offers a few advantages. Students have to have a minimum of five years of administrative experience. So you have that more advanced experience base for the members of your executive cohort.

You sign on to a cohort that begins in the fall and then progresses at a full-time pace, taking one course at a time. We’ve compressed those executive courses into shorter formats in intensive weekends, a Friday evening and an all-day Saturday, along with some online or other kinds of in-person meeting components that are adjusted to the flexibility and the needs of each cohort. We can get you through in about 18 to 19 months.

All of the administrative work is done for you by the staff. You don’t have to buy your books. You don’t have to register for courses. That’s all done for you. If you’re coming to campus, parking is paid for. Everything is for the convenience of the executive cohort, and that’s why they pay a little more.

There’s also a sense of identity that they get as a cohort, and they grow close friendships and a network that lasts, for many of them, throughout their careers.

At what point in a person’s career does an XMPA make sense?

Green: For the vast majority of our students, whether it be in early or mid-career, they’ve gotten an undergrad degree and have been promoted into some kind of administrative position, or are aspiring to do so. They’re having a devil of a time figuring out this administrative work that just wasn’t what they were trained for in their degrees. They’ve learned a great deal on the job, but they just haven’t learned that broader, bigger context of the forces, processes and obligations at play. They often realize, “Hmm, I missed something somewhere in my education.”

Hence the MPA. It’s almost always a case of “I’ve been bumping my head up against all these walls for a long time. It’s starting to hurt. I need to understand more about what’s going on. I need to enhance my understanding of what I’m supposed to be doing.”

In your experience, what are the traits, habits or attitudes that people bring to MPA programs that help make them successful?

Green: I’ve been in the program here since 2001, and at other MPA programs before that around the country. I find the most common trait for all of these students is that they’re coming to us because they want to make a difference in the nonprofit world or in government. They’re not just simply out to make a big paycheck. They’re really devoted to helping others.

Forbis: He’s not wrong on that. I spent 20 years in the private sector in the service industry. I had a very successful career. And it eventually got to me. I was tired of working 80-90 hours a week. I was looking for something else and I found the MPA program. That motivation to do public service was in me. I took the odd path and went on and got my Ph.D., but that sense of service is still in me in terms of serving the institution of the University of Utah, the students, the program; that’s why I get great joy out of doing what I do, because at the end of the day, even though I enjoyed what I was doing in the private sector, it didn’t give me what I wanted. So I changed direction at the age of 40.

It’s important to acknowledge that our students already understand that public service is their calling and that a desire to serve their community is already instilled in them. As you move through your career path, you’ll see that alumni still have that passion for public service. They still have that idea that they’re not going to stop, they want to make the world a better place. I think that holds true for anybody coming into an MPA or XMPA program. They get a broader understanding of the work that they intrinsically love to do. It gives them a bigger toolbox to engage in that public service.

For people starting to consider an MPA or XMPA, what should they do next?

Green: Look at our website. Contact faculty members who are listed on the website and talk to other students. We probably get 75 to 80% of our students from referrals by alums. We very often hear from applicants “I heard about you guys through so-and-so who works in the same agency. And they said, ‘You gotta go get an MPA.’”

We can put them in touch with students and alums if they want to hear about other people’s experiences in the program. Robert is thrilled to talk to any of these folks, as is our wonderful staff. They are really sharp people and they are going to help advise the prospective student about what it takes to get in, what documents they need to submit, etc. I’d also be happy to talk with any prospective students.

When people come into these programs, they’re tapping into a long lineage of fellow students, alums, a whole base out there of people who have a common identity and commitment to public service and to our programs. They all come out of the program saying, “I don’t know why I didn’t get into this sooner. I use it every day.” It’s a toolbox, but it is also a maturing of the outlook of the commitments that they’ve brought to public service in a way that they never understood before.

And for some of them, it changes their lives. They are transformed by that experience.

Learn more about the U’s MPA programs here.

MPA staff contact information