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Thankless Jobs Exist in All Sectors. But the MPA Need Not be a Thankless Degree.

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

By John C. Ronquillo
March 15, 2019

As the shadow of the most recent government shutdown and it’s avoided successor continues to fade, a recent write-up in the Chicago Tribune made the social media rounds among my colleagues as intense e-chatter and behind-the-screens head-nodding ensued. The title of Christopher Borrelli’s piece? Wanted: Public Servants for Thankless Jobs. Ok Who’s In? The piece was salient and timely as it explored the effects of the shutdown and it’s, “Toll on public administration programs nationwide.”

When I was an MPA student 15 years ago, I recall reading the faculty profile of one of my most esteemed professors. Her proclamation was thus: The MPA is an MBA with a conscience.

MBA programs may take umbrage with such an assessment—especially programs that now recognize the value of a more socially conscious curriculum—but the statement has stuck all these years. “Right on,” I thought. “This is the degree that will help me and all these other civic and socially-minded folks change the world.”

And frankly, it hasn’t disappointed. I feel that it was one of my best educational investments. But well into my academic career, it’s easy to see it that way in hindsight.

The enrollment ebbs and flows of law and business programs, who also supply a healthy amount of human capital to government and nonprofit organizations, have been well-documented, and it is worth examining the state of MPA programs. In fact, the Tribune article mentioned that public administration programs were seeing declining enrollments, especially among programs focused on the federal level, according to the Network of School of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). NASPAA is also looking to study how the recent government shutdown affected student perceptions, according to Borrelli’s Tribune piece.

While MPA programs and their delivery formats have expanded over the years, the time may also be ripe to examine what curricular and formatting innovations can be experimented with and potentially adopted as a mechanism to keep our programs vibrant and strong.

I am fortunate to work at an institution that has flexible offerings, including the so-called “traditional” program where students take courses in the evenings and at their own pace, in addition to an accelerated program where students focus on their studies full-time over the course of a year. We also have a robust online program, as well as a small, cohort-based, Executive MPA program.

While the flexibility is generally positive, there is, of course, a variety of feedback ranging from constructive inputs to outright complaints I’ve heard as a faculty member. While there is little I can do as a sole instructor, some of these points deserve consideration. They are but one way to respond to some challenges, but by no means should be viewed as a panacea for all enrollment woes. Here are a few suggestions based on feedback I’ve received over the years:

Split up some courses into smaller credit offerings. As opposed to a 15- or 16-week semester-long course, that at the outset looks to cover certain areas but may end up falling short, why not offer one-credit courses over the span of five weeks? Or 1.5 credit courses over seven weeks? Combine them over the course of the traditional semester for more variety and flexibility.

Offer more weekend, hybrid intensives where appropriate. I’ve taught organizational behavior in traditional semester-long offerings, and in intensive, executive-format weekend courses. On average, students seem to prefer the intensive format. It’s not that they don’t want to devote several hours in class talking about the classic canon of literature, but rather that they’re aware of the summarized frameworks they can consult, while tackling some very tangible issues in their current professions. An expansion of these types of offerings should be particularly useful for executive programs but shouldn’t be limited to such.

Eliminate the capstone for executive students in favor of something that better utilizes their expertise. I’ve had some pretty remarkable students in my executive course offerings: division directors, mayors, county executives, engineers, attorneys, and a bevy of others with, on average, over a decade of experience. This decade-plus of experience usually trumps the non-academic professional experience of most tenured or tenure-track faculty, and we should leverage that positively. The capstone experience is highly useful for students without as much professional experience, but might not provide as much tangible benefit from these more seasoned professionals.

Granted, the issue here is that the recent government shutdown has left negative impressions among many, including students in MPA programs. That is a big picture, perception-based issue to deal with. But some schools have capitalized on the above points already and have not only experimented, but succeeded in curricular changes without altering fundamental elements of their programs or threatening their accreditation, in some cases attracting more students into their ranks. But for other schools that have not, looking at opportunities for curricular innovation may also help attract people to their programs and underline the fact that the MPA is still a dynamic, innovative, and flexible degree. The public sector workplace is also dynamic, and some of the course offerings in MPA programs should be as well.

Author: John C. Ronquillo is assistant professor of nonprofit and public management at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs where he teaches courses in leadership and ethics, and public management. He was also the MPA chair at the DePaul University in his first faculty position. His research interests are in indigenous governance and leadership, and social and organizational innovation. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @johnron.

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