One way to get noticed in the growing pool of up-and-coming do-gooders is to get a masters degree focused on public sector management. As nonprofits run themselves more and more like businesses, there is a growing need for young people whose business know-how is as apparent as their passion to make a difference.

The nonprofit world is acutely aware of the need for new talent to replace the alarming number of baby boomer executives expected to retire in the coming years. “We need to ensure that the pool of candidates is bigger, better, and more diverse,” said Denice Rothman Hinden in a January 2006 Chronicle of Philanthropy article. The good news is that more and more colleges and universities are developing programs to address this growing need. This recent growth is both good and bad; on one hand more programs means more choices, and on the other, well, more programs means more choices. As someone currently enrolled in a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program, I learned first-hand that while choices are wonderful to have, they also make for a daunting degree-selection process.

More than 100 schools across the country offer graduate degree programs focused on nonprofit management. Big and small, these schools include some of our nation’s best: from Harvard and Georgetown to the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern. Approximately half of the existing programs grant an MPA degree and the other half grants a combination of Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master in Urban Planning (MUP), Master of Arts in Philanthropic Studies (MA), Public and Nonprofit Master of Business Administration (MBA) and others, each representing a unique specialization within the public and nonprofit management realm. So which one is best for you? The benefit of so many choices is the opportunity to choose a program that fits closely with your interests and career goals. Get started by reviewing the descriptions of possible degrees below.

MBA vs MPA, MSW, MPP? What’s the Difference?

The degree programs summarized below represent a sample of those that exist throughout colleges and universities across the country.

MBA: A Masters of Business Administration degree is meant to prepare students for a managerial career. Classes are generally focused on private sector business and students often choose a specialization such as marketing or finance. Recently, specializations have started to include public sector topics as well, such as Boston University’s Public and Nonprofit MBA program. Students can expect classes such as Foundations of Finance, Global Markets and Financial Accounting. Most colleges and universities that offer graduate-level courses have an MBA program and graduating students often secure jobs as product managers, senior investment associates, or account managers.

MPA: A Masters of Public Administration degree “has far more public-sector relevant classroom content than an MBA does,” according to Lisa Taylor, a graduate of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU who is now employed by the school’s career services department. Taylor also notes that many MBA skills are taught in an MPA program, e.g. budgeting and financial management, but an MPA teaches these topics in the context of the public sector. MPA students can expect to take classes such as Financial Management for Nonprofit Organizations, Introduction to Public Policy and Statistical Methods. Graduates of NYU Wagner have secured jobs such as Manager of Philanthropic Programs for American Express, Development Associate for Good Shepherd Services, Grants Manager for Merck and Co. and Strategic Planning Analyst for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

MSW: A Masters of Social Work degree prepares students to work directly with clients in the field, perform clinical assessments and manage large caseloads. A MSW is generally required for any managerial position in this field and academic programs generally include a year of classroom study and a year of field work.  Examples of specializations include health, children and families, management and planning and clinical practice. Graduates often find jobs in fields including adoption support, child protection, employment, hospice care, mental health counseling and school social work. Over 200 schools across the country offer graduate degrees in social work including Boston College, the University of Southern California and Arizona State University.

MPP: In a Masters of Public Policy program, graduate students can expect to study topics such as policy analysis, ethics, government relations, budgeting, and global issues. Many students graduate and secure jobs in local or state governments or in national agencies such as the Department of Defense, Energy or Transportation. Schools such as George Mason, the University of Missouri, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University offer MPP graduate degrees.

MUP: A Masters of Urban Planning degree focuses on studying the factors and trends that define metropolitan areas including city revitalization, empowerment of impoverished areas, and environmental concerns. Students can expect to take classes such as Urban Economics, Introduction to Urban Design and Land Use Law. MUP programs can be found at colleges and universities across the country including the University of Buffalo, NYU Wagner, the University of Maryland and the University of California, Irvine. Graduates of MUP programs have gone on to secure jobs in such organizations as the UN, USAID, the World Bank, local and state housing agencies and nonprofit organizations that assist the homeless.

Choosing Your Program

Armed with a better idea of what’s out there, you can begin the process of selecting the program that’s best for you. Just like selecting your undergraduate college or university, there are a number of factors to consider: location, size, price, student body, class offerings, jobs secured after graduation and others.  You can expect most full-time programs to last two years and require three to five classes per semester to graduate. Part-time programs typically take three to four years. If you are unsure you want to commit to a degree program or aren’t thrilled with the idea of classroom learning, several universities offer certificate programs and online curriculums.

The online resources below are great places to start researching programs and narrowing down the list of schools that interest you:

National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) (http://www.naspaa.org): A national organization dedicated to promoting graduate education to prepare students for careers in public service. This site will have the most up-to-date information on graduate programs, student events, and careers and internships

www.idealist.org: Lists the degree offered and website of over 100 colleges and universities with public sector-focused programs

www.Gradschool.com: A comprehensive database of graduate programs across the country

American Humanics (www.AmericanHumanics.org): This organization’s mission is to educate, prepare and certify professionals to strengthen and lead nonprofits

Seton Hall University (http://tltc.shu.edu/npo/): The website includes a searchable database of nonprofit graduate programs by degree, region and state

Is it worth it?

Cost is of particular concern to many students considering a graduate-level education – especially one designed to place students in the public sector where salaries are notoriously low. Entry-level graduates can expect to receive an average of 22% less at a nonprofit than at a for-profit job. Several factors influence salary however.  “It is important to look at salary in context,” says NYU’s Lisa Taylor, who points to factors such as the position being applied to, the number of years of relevant work experience, prior management experience, relevant academic coursework or certifications and the size and type of organization the candidate is targeting.

Tuition costs for an MPA are comparable, and often identical, to those for an MBA. A year in Columbia’s MPA or Boston University’s nonprofit MBA program will cost about $33,000; NYU charges about $28,000. Johns Hopkins costs $34,000, and Loyola of Chicago runs about $19,000 per year for an MPA.

The challenge for many graduate students, including myself, is figuring out how to manage these new expenses on top of rent, utilities, groceries and other expenses that were largely absent during undergraduate years. Additionally, if you, like me, decide to attend school full-time, you will also be forgoing all or most of your income. The good news is that it is possible, and not as daunting as it may initially appear. There are countless resources for student loans and scholarships, or if you’re lucky, your employer will pick up all or part of the tab. Begin your search with NASPAA’s site (www.naspaa.org) or with general sites such as www.GradLoans.com, which provides information about scholarships and fellowships in addition to government and private loans. Also be sure to check with the schools you are applying to to learn about work-study programs, graduate assistant-ships or scholarships. Often you must apply early to be considered for these programs so be sure to check your deadlines.

Getting In

You’ve narrowed down your list of possible schools and now it’s time to apply. What do you need to do? First, determine if the school(s) you are applying to require you to take either the GRE or the GMAT and if so, sign up for a test date.  The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, measures verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.  The GMAT, or Graduate Management Admission Tests, consists of an analytical writing assessment, a quantitative section that includes problem solving and data sufficiency and a verbal section.

The GMAT is generally required for graduate business programs so would likely be required if you were applying for an MBA focused on nonprofit management. The GRE is often required for non-business programs and many schools recommend but do not require it. In those cases you should consider taking the test if your undergraduate GPA is not especially strong or if you have been out of school for several years. Visit www.ets.org to register for and learn more about the GRE, and www.mba.com for the GMAT.

The application process for graduate school is very similar to the process for undergraduate programs. A personal statement is generally required in addition to a general application and resume. So what are admissions officers looking for? According to Lisa Taylor, “MPA programs look for students who are committed to public service, understand the field, have academic ability and clear career goals. Our top candidates generally excel in one of three areas: strong academics; extensive experience in a relevant field; or, a demonstrated commitment to serving their local or undergraduate communities.” To learn more about what schools are looking for you may want to consider attending a nonprofit-focused graduate school fair. Idealist.org keeps a calendar of these fairs throughout the year.

So you want to go back to school to change the world? It’s a big step, but the doors it can open for your future career make it well worth the late nights and loan payments. With so many choices of programs, I’m confident you will be able to find a degree that fits your interests and will lead to that dream job. I wish you the best of luck.

Shannon Bond works in the Philanthropy Division of Changing Our World, where she consults to corporations seeking to conduct effective community involvement programs. She can be reached at sbond@changingourworld.com.