Choose the Right Online MPA Program in 2018

Given his passion for public service, Gordon-Andrew Fletcher felt that a Master of Public Administration would be an ideal supplement to his law degree.

When looking into different MPA programs, Fletcher also realized that completing one online would allow him to continue working full time.

“I’m very busy. But I didn’t want me being busy to stop me from pursuing another degree,” says the 32-year-old District of Columbia resident. Fletcher chose to pursue an online MPA at American University. An added bonus, he says, is that the school has a local alumni network.

An online MPA degree may be a good fit for those seeking leadership positions in government or the nonprofit sector who also need the flexibility to work around their own schedules.

[Learn how to assess the flexibility of an online degree program.]

Here are five questions prospective students should ask as they explore online MPA programs and consult with admissions officers.

1. Are there in-person requirements? Online MPAs vary as to whether they require students to come to campus.

At the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, online MPA students visit campus twice – at the beginning and conclusion of the program. During that time, they network with each other and faculty and participate in team-building activities, among other things, according to the program’s website.

Given that many online students also work full time, a program with an on-ground component may not be ideal. Students would likely need to take off from work and possibly pay travel expenses.

In addition, some online MPAs have practicum requirements. At the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill School of Government, students must complete 300 to 400 hours in a public service environment, which can be a project or interim duties as part of their current job, says Willow Jacobson, an associate professor of public administration.

2. Is the program accredited? Accreditation is a process conducted by an outside authority to determine if an online or on-ground university – and, in some cases, a specific program – meets certain standards of quality. When John Norwood, who’s studying for an online MPA in nonprofit management at the for-profit Capella University, looked into programs, accreditation was top of mind.

[Discover how to check whether an online degree program is accredited.]

“Are they accredited? How long have they been accredited? Is their accreditation in any kind of jeopardy?” says the 36-year-old Tennessee resident.

Experts say prospective students should ensure an institution has accreditation from agencies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or U.S. Department of Education. That increases the likelihood that future employers and other universities – should students transfer or pursue additional degrees – will accept their credits or recognize their diploma.

Depending on prospective online students’ career goals, they may want to determine whether their MPA also has accreditation at the programmatic level from specific agencies such as the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration, or NASPAA. This may be important if they want certain organizations or companies to recognize their degree, experts say.

3. What’s the regional reputation of the school’s on-ground program? Most MPA programs have developed their reputations through face-to-face learning and regional job placements for graduates, says Daniel Smith, MPA director at the University of Delaware School of Public Policy and Administration, which offers an online program.

He recommends asking an adviser about postgraduation employment rates for on-campus students, even if they live far away. That can give prospective online students broader insight into the overall quality of an institution.

4. How does the online program teach real-world skills? Even though online MPA students may never meet each other in person, a program should still teach them leadership and management skills that they can apply in a face-to-face workplace.

[Explore four ways online education teaches real-world skills.]

Vicky Wilkins, interim dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, says online students in her class write memos under tight deadlines and record presentations about staff training, diversity and inclusion. They also focus on case studies, which may pertain to topics such as violations of law in the workplace, and submit responses to real-life scenarios using a webcam.

Experts recommend asking if there’s a capstone course that may allow students to apply what they learn. In the online MPA program at American, students complete a policy analysis project for a specific client.

5. How does the program encourage a sense of community? Community is often an important element of administration jobs in the nonprofit and public sectors, experts say. Prospective online MPA students should ask about student interaction, which can occur through on-campus residencies or events, discussion forums, meetups or online courses in real time.

The same goes for interacting with faculty, whether virtually or on campus, says Maryann Tobin, executive director of programs in the arts and sciences college at the University of Miami, which has an online MPA.