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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By William Hatcher
August 11, 2015
This month, PA Times is examining the future of education. Given this focus, I would like to briefly discuss the future of our MPA programs.
The last few decades have been difficult for government and public servants. The public sector has been constantly challenged to do more with less, to downsize and to redefine its mission. And in recent years, the fiscal effects of the Great Recession cut many governmental positions, in particular state and local jobs. According to the Hamilton Project, over 500,000 federal, state and local positions were cut.
Many within public administration are concerned with the state of our field. We worry about the declining support for basic public services, especially at the local government level. For instance, during the height of the Great Recession, a worrisome number of cities cut basic services such as streetlights. We worry about how public services are being funded by user fees, which are often regressive and ineffective, instead of longstanding and effective traditional forms of taxation. Today, many local governments rely heavily on court fees to fund basic public services. Lastly, we worry about how the public has lost its trust in government’s ability to solve public problems.
In such a changing environment, public administration clearly needs to adapt. However, our field should not completely redefine its core mission of helping to design administrative procedures that implement public policies in an efficient, effective and fair manner. We should continue to make the case for the role of government in providing public goods that will contribute to our future economy and society. When making this case to our students, we need to highlight the positive features of our field.
The MPA remains a strong degree for individuals wanting to make a difference in their communities. Students go into MPA programs not to get rich, but the degree does provide a comfortable standing of living. The starting salary for MPA graduates hovers around $68,000. And while jobs have been cut over the past few years, public employment is projected to grow in the future. In a recent article, Stateline predicts noticeable growth in public sector employment. In fact, employment at all levels of government is projected to increase by 1.4 million over the next decade.
Our field is well-equipped to handle this possible growth. There are approximately 200 NASPAA accredited MPA programs. Such a widespread network of quality programs helps build public capacity throughout the nation and ensures that current and future managers have access to the education that they need. We must fight to maintain this level of access for our students.
A few years ago, Governing magazine published an interesting article discussing how some programs are “fighting to save the MPA.” To protect its funding, one program used old school lobbying, including effective appeals from their alumni, to demonstrate their worth. Another program moved out of the business school and merged with political sciences. The programs that have struggled to maintain their funding show us how our field must ensure these programs bring value to their communities. Then we need to promote that value to key stakeholders. The MPA education must constantly improve in order to protect its value. The design of our programs should be rooted in evidence, the views of our faculty, the opinions of our community stakeholders and the skills and education that our students will need to be economically competitive.
To do so, MPA programs need to focus on what is important for the next generation of professionals, while also serving midcareer professionals. In a recent article in PM Magazine, the new generation of workers have some of the same reasons to work in local government as previous generations, in particular a chance to make a difference in their communities and have access to a stable job. However, the next generation will have certain expectations about public and nonprofit organizations that will cause us to re-evaluate certain parts of our public administration curricula. According to the authors, the next generation of workers will want flexibility in their jobs and will be motivated by workplace relationships.
To stay relevant for these workers, MPA programs need to focus on managing workplace culture, providing professional development and ensuring that our students have an opportunity to learn through experience. We can accomplish these goals by continuing to provide a strong education rooted in scholarship, offering strong internships opportunities so students have practical skills and are present in the community.
Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the master of public administration program at Georgia Regents University. He can be reached at [email protected]. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)