Public Administration vs. Master of Social Work: What Degree is Right for You?

Cole Neder

Cole Neder

Updated & Fact Checked: 05.22.2024

Introduction

Are you passionate about making a difference in your community or society at large? Considering a career in public service but unsure whether a Master of Public Administration (MPA) or a Master of Social Work (MSW) is the right path for you? Both degrees offer unique opportunities to address social issues and contribute to positive change, but they differ in focus and approach. In this blog post, we’ll explore the key differences between an MPA and an MSW, including their core curriculum, career paths, and potential impact in the field of public service.

Whether you aspire to lead policy change or work directly with individuals and communities, understanding the distinctions between these two degrees can help you make an informed decision about your future.

MPA vs. MSW: Degree Comparison

The Master of Social Work (MSW) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) degrees are both popular options for students seeking to make a difference. Choosing between the two depends on your interests and career goals; if you prefer direct work with people, MSW might be for you, while those interested in public policy may prefer MPA.

The combination of these degrees provides a bridge between policy and people, enhancing career opportunities and salary potential. However, pursuing a dual degree requires additional time and cost compared to a standalone MSW.

Important factors to consider while choosing either program- or a dual degree- include accreditation, cost, location, and specializations offered by programs. Talking to professionals in the field can also provide valuable insights into which degree aligns best with your aspirations. Ultimately, both degrees offer good job prospects and can lead to fulfilling careers in public service.

Admissions Requirements

Admissions requirements usually include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and sometimes standardized test scores like the GRE or GMAT. Some programs may also require relevant work experience.

Admissions requirements for dual programs typically include meeting the requirements for each individual program, as well as demonstrating a strong interest in both public administration and social work. This might involve submitting separate application materials to each program and possibly participating in separate admissions processes for each.

Topics Covered

Public Administration (MPA) Degree: An MPA degree focuses on public policy, preparing students for policy-level work in government agencies and beyond. MPA programs are accredited by NASPAA.

Social Work (MSW) Degree: The MSW focuses on helping improve lives at micro, mezzo, and macro levels, offering opportunities in direct services, mid-level management, and large-scale policy work. The MSW degree prepares students to work with individuals, families, groups, and communities to address social problems in settings like schools, hospitals, and nonprofits.

Time to Completion

The time to completion for a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is typically two to four years, depending on whether the student is enrolled full-time or part-time and the specific program requirements. MPA programs generally require around 36 to 48 credits for completion.

For a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, the time to completion is also typically two to four years, with similar considerations for full-time versus part-time enrollment and program requirements. MSW programs generally require around 60 credits for completion.

When these degrees are combined into a dual MPA/MSW program, the total time to completion is usually longer, typically around three to five years. This is because the student is essentially completing two separate degree programs, each with its own set of requirements. The total number of credits required for a dual MPA/MSW program can vary but is often around 80 to 90 credits in total.

MPA / MSW Dual-Degree Programs

A dual degree combining a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) uniquely prepares professionals for leadership and management roles. This guide provides an overview of what to expect from a MSW/MPA dual-degree program:

University of South Carolina

  • Columbia, SC
  • Campus

Program: 
College of Social Work

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 60

Program Overview:
The College of Social Work and the Master of Public Administration program offer a dual degree program allowing students to earn both degrees more quickly. Applicants apply through the USC Graduate School, with admissions decisions made independently by each program. Students taking courses in both programs may be subject to fees for both.

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University of Nebraska – Omaha

  • Omaha, NE
  • Online + Campus

Program: 
School of Public Administration

Modality: Online/On-Campus

Credits: 63

Program Overview:
The program prepares students for advanced social work roles and leadership in public service, focusing on administrative and policy work in governmental and nonprofit sectors. Students starting at the MSW Foundation level must complete 81 credit hours, while those starting at the Advanced Standing level must complete 57 credit hours.

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University of North Carolina

  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • Campus

Program: 
School of Social Work

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 92

Program Overview:
The dual-degree program allows students to earn both a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree, focusing on human services management and leadership. The MPA degree is awarded through the UNC School of Government (SOG) at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students complete 92 credit hours (50 in social work and 42 in public administration) over three years.

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University of Utah

  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • Campus

Program: 
College of Social Work

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 81

Program Overview:
The MSW/MPA dual-degree program allows students to earn both a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from the College of Social Work and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree from the Center for Public Policy and Administration, College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah. The program spans three years and six semesters, offering students the opportunity to develop specialties in both social work and public administration.

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New York University – Wagner

  • New York, NY
  • Campus

Program: 
Silver School of Social Work

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 83

Program Overview:
The Silver School and NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service offer a dual-degree program allowing students to pursue an MSW and an Executive MPA simultaneously. Through course planning and transfer credits, students can complete both degrees in two years, including two summers.

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University of Southern California

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Campus

Program: 
Price School of Public Administration

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 82

Program Overview:
The MPA/MSW dual degree program prepares students for careers in social agency administration by combining social work and public administration studies. The program lasts two years, with the first year focusing on social work and the second integrating both disciplines.

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Aurora University

  • Aurora, IL
  • Online

Program: 
Public Administration Department

Modality: Online

Credits: 54

Program Overview:
Students receive substantial public administration education alongside their social work studies, preparing them for administrative leadership in social services. The program requires 54 semester hours (with advanced social work standing) or 84 hours (without) and maintains the integrity of both degrees. Students must meet MSW admission requirements, receive joint advising, and pay a hybrid tuition rate.

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University of Washington

  • Seattle, WA
  • Campus

Program: 
Evans School of Public Policy and Governance

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 75

Program Overview:
This interdisciplinary program prepares students to work at the intersection of social work and public policy in various professional roles. The program requires careful planning to align with the requirements of both schools and the UW Graduate School. Admissions are through the School of Social Work and the Evans School, and completing both degrees typically takes about three years, including a full-time summer practicum.

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Eastern Washington University

  • Cheney, WA
  • Online + Campus

Program: 
School of Social Work

Modality: Online/On-Campus

Credits: 118

Program Overview:
Applicants must be admitted to both programs, and those already enrolled in one can qualify for the dual degree. The program requires at least 118 credits for students in the two-year MSW program and 79 credits for advanced standing MSW students. It can be completed in eight to nine quarters for two-year MSW students and in six quarters for advanced standing students.

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Columbia University

  • New York, NY
  • Campus

Program: 
Social Work and Public Administration

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 82

Program Overview:
The Columbia School of Social Work offers nine dual-degree programs with other Columbia University graduate schools, allowing students to study two disciplines simultaneously. Applicants must apply to and be accepted by both schools to be considered dual-degree students.

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Program: 
Department of Public Administration

Modality: On-Campus

Credits: 73

Program Overview:
The Department of Public Administration and the School of Social Work offer concurrent Master of Social Work/Master of Public Administration degrees for students interested in administrative roles in social services. The program requires 73 units, with 21 units from the MPA program and 52 units from the MSW program.

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University of Southern Indiana

  • Evansville, IN
  • Online + Campus

Program: 
College of Liberal Arts

Modality: Online/On-Campus

Credits: 85

Program Overview:
The University of Southern Indiana offers its first dual-degree program, combining a Master of Social Work (MSW) with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) that can be completed in two years. Students must be admitted to both programs before starting the dual degree.

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Grand Valley State University

  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Online + Campus

Program: 
School of Community Leadership and Development

Modality: Online/On-Campus

Credits: 81

Program Overview:
This program prepares students for management roles in human service organizations, combining social work values with administrative expertise. Students complete the MSW first, then apply to the MPA program. The SCLD accepts some MSW classes for the MPA, reducing the total credits required. Students who already have an MSW or MPA can pursue a second degree in the other discipline.

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Comparing Career Fields and Professional Opportunities

Career paths for MSW/MPA graduates include roles in international development, government, nonprofit management, social enterprise, and more, with a wide salary range. The career outlook for dual MSW/MPA degree holders is strong, with job growth projections exceeding the national average for several professions.

Career Fields

Public Administration (MPA): Master of Public Administration (MPA) graduates often pursue careers in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and international institutions, focusing on areas such as public policy analysis, program management, and public finance. Common job titles for MPA graduates include policy analyst, program manager, budget analyst, and public administrator.

Social Work (MSW): Career opportunities for Master of Social Work (MSW) graduates include roles such as clinical social worker, school social worker, healthcare social worker, and substance abuse counselor. MSW graduates often work in settings like hospitals, schools, mental health clinics, and social service agencies, providing direct services to individuals and families in need. They may also pursue roles in community organizing, advocacy, and policy analysis, working to address systemic issues and promote social justice.

Dual Degree Recipients: Graduates with a dual degree in MSW and MPA have a unique skill set that enables them to excel in a variety of roles that require expertise in both social work and public administration. They are well-suited for leadership positions in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups where they can influence policy decisions and implement programs that have a direct impact on individuals and communities. Some unique job opportunities for dual-degree graduates include:

  • Social Policy Analyst: Analyzing social policies and their impact on vulnerable populations, and making recommendations for improvement based on social work principles and public administration practices.
  • Nonprofit Executive Director: Leading a nonprofit organization that focuses on social welfare issues, overseeing programs, managing budgets, and advocating for policy change at the local, state, or national level.
  • Government Liaison: Serving as a liaison between government agencies and community organizations, ensuring that social services are delivered effectively and efficiently to those in need.
  • Program Evaluator: Evaluating the effectiveness of social programs and interventions, using both social work research methods and public administration evaluation techniques to measure outcomes and make recommendations for improvement.
  • Community Development Manager: Managing community development projects that address social issues such as affordable housing, healthcare access, and economic development, working closely with government agencies, nonprofits, and community stakeholders.