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Learning More About Small MPA Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Hatcher
October 13, 2015

According to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), there are numerous Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs with 100 students or less. Based on data collected annually by NASPAA, there were 118 small MPA programs in 2014. Of these programs, 85 (72 percent) identified as being accredited by NASPAA.

Small MPA programs serve an important role in building professional capacity in public administration. But given their size, they face unique challenges in terms of resources. However, few studies in the public administration literature have examined the topic of small MPA programs.

Past research on small MPA programs has found that the programs are less likely to be accredited. For instance, in a 1989 article published in Public Administration Review, Cleary found small programs (less than 100 students) to be less likely to be accredited, compared to large programs (100 students or more). Of the programs that responded to Cleary’s survey, 67.2 percent of the large programs were accredited, but only 34.8 percent of the smaller programs were accredited.

This finding should be considered with caution. For one, the data is from the 1980s. Second, recent numbers for NASPPA reported above show that 72 percent of the small programs that responded to the 2014 survey were accredited. It appears that small programs are more likely to be accredited now than in the past.

In a study from 1993, McGinnis surveyed 84 directors of small MPA programs. The author found the following:

  • Small MPA programs often had solid reputations. However, the programs tended to be more regionally focused than larger programs that tend to be more nationally focused.
  • Small MPA programs had more in-service students than pre-service students.
  • For the most part, institutions provided small programs with the research support needed to achieve and maintain NASPAA accreditation.

Overall, small programs were able to deliver a quality degree and contribute to the diversity of MPA programs by educating more in-service students. Nevertheless, these findings are dated. Researchers need to examine the current features of small programs.

A research agenda on small MPA programs should focus on collecting empirical evidence describing the programs. McGinnis’ survey needs to be administered to current directors of small programs. Such a survey can help the field determine the current challenges of small programs along with the benefits that they deliver.

The following are some challenges that may affect small programs:

  • First, many small programs have to deal with the resource constraint of their faculty being required to teach a large number of courses. We want our MPA faculty in the classroom, but we also want these faculty conducting research and doing community outreach. These goals are more difficult in programs with high teaching loads, especially institutions that require faculty to teach four courses per semester. MPA program directors need to fight for their faculty to have manageable teaching loads.
  • Second, small programs may get lost in budget process at their universities. Their small number of students may make it difficult for the programs to compete for resources.
  • Last, McGinnis found that larger programs had more of a national reputation than smaller ones. The reputations of larger programs help them market their program offerings. Smaller programs, with more regional reputations, have difficulties marketing to potential students. To market their programs, MPA directors can take advantage of free media (including social media) and build strong ties to the local community.

While they face a host of challenges, small MPA programs still play a vital role in public administration education. The following are just a few of the benefits produced by small MPA programs:

  • Small MPA programs build administrative capacity. The graduates of small programs improve many small communities.
  • Small MPA programs offer students more interactions with their faculty. The classroom numbers are small, which gives instructors the ability to incorporate interactive, applied teaching methods.
  • Small MPA programs educate large numbers of in-service students.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, there were 308 MPA programs (190 accredited programs) that answered NASPAA’s annual survey. As mentioned, 119 programs reported having 100 or less students. This represents a sizable percentage (38.6 percent) of the MPA programs. However, we have not studied the issues facing these small programs. Due to the important role that small programs play in public administration education, our field needs to dedicate more discussion and research to help small MPA programs remain effective.


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.)

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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