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What Do You Do with a Degree Title Like MPP (or Worse)?

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

By Erik Devereux
November 5, 2020 

This is the fourth and final of four columns I will write in 2020 about the current state of U.S. schools of public policy (here is the link to the first column, the second column and the third column. Having addressed some profound challenges confronting the schools in this century, I finish the series with a diversion into the fascinating world of degree program titles. For more than 25 years now I have been arguing to the leaders of the schools that the one and only acronym for the professional masters degree in the field should be MPA. Fortunately, MPA does dominate (at least in the broader NASPAA universe) with MPP the second most common. Unfortunately, many of the schools have branched out from there to create specialized degrees with an alphabet soup of acronyms, some of which I recently harvested from their websites to create the graphic accompanying this column.

A professional field with the inherent defects of public policy cannot afford to weaken its public brand identity with degree titles that do not accurately convey their intended purpose. The Master of Public Administration clearly indicates what the student is learning and why; the Master of Public Policy does not. If you have doubts about this claim, considered that, empirically, the true masters of public policy in the United States overwhelmingly are graduates of law schools.

If it were up to me, the schools would change the MPP to be the Master of Policy Analysis, thereby clearly informing future employers as to why the degree program exists and what the benefits are of hiring its graduates. The flagship brand across the board would be MPA, just as MBA is the unquestioned and universally recognized brand for the business schools. Think of the gift it would be to the professional students in the policy schools no longer to devote tremendous time and effort just to explaining the purpose of their degree.

Many years ago, my former employer Carnegie Mellon University was blessed with a business school that granted not the MBA but the MSIA – the Master of Science in Industrial Administration. The degree title was entrenched among the faculty in a way that suggested it was a noble distinction to be lauded. But that emperor proved to have no clothes. When Carnegie Mellon hired a new dean for the school from the c-suite of a major Fortune 500 company, among that dean’s first initiatives was to change the degree to MBA. That wise, outside perspective was grounded in the world of business to where the students ostensibly were headed. The MSIA was, for lack of anything better to say, stupid. I wish that same leadership would emerge within the policy schools to understand the need to have a well-defined, clearly understood MPA brand.

Instead, when I talk about degree titles with leaders at the policy schools what they generally focus on is niche marketing to recruit students to campus. Most of those highly specialized degree acronyms in the graphic above reflect niches like nonprofit management, arts management, environmental policy, information policy and health policy. Under the hood though, the programs essentially are the same as the “flagship” MPA or MPP with a handful of specialized courses that otherwise should be called a concentration. If the schools were manufacturing products instead of degrees, this questionable practice of serving leftovers as fresh cuts might deserve scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission or the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As is, the substantial loan debt students incur completing these supposed specialized degrees might merit scrutiny from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau!

The ultimate reason to use the MPA across the board is that the great convergence between the curricula of public administration and public policy is irreversible. Public administration programs regularly include economics and quantitative methods courses, and public policy programs regularly include policy process and public finance courses. In fact, I could show you the core requirements of one of the programs and you would be unlikely to correctly assign it a degree title between MPA and MPP. I actually have conducted this contest and generated much bewilderment among the participants about how intertwined the two fields are now.

The reason that all this makes me so animated is that the students are the ultimate victims of hubris among the policy school leaders who cling to the MPP and the specialized degrees. More than at any other time in recent memory, what this world needs are highly educated, professional students trained to bring analysis and expertise to bear on matters of public policy. We in this field should not be creating unnecessary barriers to their progress by maintaining outdated curricula, fielding misleading specialized degrees or saddling them with degree titles that do not clearly indicate to the public their intended purpose. I know the field has the capacity to do better by its students. Now, let’s just do that and get on with more important problems like dismantling poverty, reforming the police or managing climate change.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected] Twitter: @eadevereux.

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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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