Universities across the country offer master's degrees in both public affairs and public administration. Students looking for the right program often find the differences between these two degrees confusing and vague. Though there are small curricular differences between them, in general a master's in public affairs is very similar to a master's in public administration. Students should choose a program based on a school's specific strengths, whether it's in public affairs or public administration.
Master's in Public Affairs
Leading master's in public affairs programs include those at the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School, the University of Texas Lyndon Johnson School and the University of Wisconin La Follette School. Each of these programs requires courses in statistical methods and microeconomics, and most programs also require a course in public management or finance. Outside of the classroom, public affairs programs typically expect a student to complete an internship or other practical professional experience. In the case of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, for example, students undertake professional experience in a capstone course with a real-world client.
Master's in Public Administration
Course requirements at the leading master's in public administration programs are often nearly identical to those in public affairs. The Harvard Kennedy School and the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs' programs in public administration both require courses in statistics, microeconomics and public management or finance. Most programs, likewise, also include a professional development component, where a student might be expected to undertake an internship. Generally, public administration programs try to convey more knowledge about the management and administration of public systems than public affairs programs. In practice, though, the curricula of the two degrees are almost always very similar.
How They're Different
Though the curricula of public affairs and public administration programs are nearly the same, the admissions requirements do vary between the two. Usually, a public administration program will be less likely to admit a recent college graduate who has never worked in the public sector. The Harvard Kennedy School's program in public administration, for example, is only open to seasoned professionals who have at least three years of work experience. Public affairs programs are more lenient with work requirements, but work experience will still be helpful on an application.
Choosing the Right Fit
Since public administration and public affairs programs provide a nearly identical educational experience, your choice of a school should come down to your background and personal preferences. If you're a recent college graduate, for example, you might prefer a public affairs to a public administration program. You should also consider each school's strengths individually to find the right program. Some schools are leaders in education policy, while others lead in international development. Consider your career path, research individual schools and then complete your applications. The term "administration" or "affairs" should be less important to you than the content of the individual program.
Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan, Textbooks.com, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.