Online Master of Public Policy and Leadership vs Online Master of Public Administration: What’s the Difference?

public policy leaders meeting
public policy leaders meeting

Professionals in the world of public policy and politics have many options for their graduate degrees. The online master of public policy and leadership (MPPL) and the online master of public administration (MPA) are in demand because they directly address challenges facing the public, nonprofit, and government sectors. The biggest question in the online MPPL vs. MPA discussion is which online degree allows graduates to lead and drive the most meaningful change in their roles within these sectors?

Online MPA programs focus on the execution of policies in the public sector. Online MPPLs, like the online Master of Public Policy and Leadership program at the School of Public Policy (SPP) at Pepperdine University, build policy expertise and leadership skills desired in the public, nonprofit, and government sectors. Graduates with online MPAs are taught to administer and execute plans, while online MPPL graduates are trained to bring communities together. Through their leadership in both elected and staff positions, they craft innovative solutions to problems their communities face, then mobilize their communities to come together to achieve the intended outcome.

The online MPPL from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy puts the “public” back into public policy. This one-of-a-kind program builds leaders who understand and connect with the diverse communities they lead by focusing on servant leadership and viewpoint diversity. The program’s cross-sector emphasis and innovative design offers multiple certificate options in an innovative, stackable format. Read on to learn more about this groundbreaking online program. 

Skills Learned in Online MPPL vs. Online MPA Programs

The online MPPL vs. online MPA conversation starts with an exploration of what skills are taught in each program type. Overlaps exist between these online degrees, but public policy and leadership and public administration involve different goals. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) notes that an online MPA degree involves the implementation of policy, while an online MPPL degree teaches the development and evaluation of policy skills that are necessary to lead an organization or initiative.

Online MPPL programs emphasize policy formation, innovation, communication, and analytical skills often in the background of the online MPA curricula. Graduates of online MPPL programs learn how to best execute this four-step policy leadership process:

  1. Understand the context, perspectives, and key actors involved in the problem
  2. Research and identify the full spectrum of policy options available
  3. Articulate the context, costs, and benefits of each option and assess which is best
  4. Bring the key actors together to craft and implement the solution to the problem

Imagine a situation where a city manager or federal agency leader tries to solve problems for which policies do not exist. Online MPPL graduates are able to lead efforts to build solutions to these problems with skills that are critical in today’s rapidly shifting policy environment at the local, state, and federal levels. They also learn the administrative skills necessary to make these changes sustainable and effective. MPA programs place much more emphasis on this latter part of the process — emphasizing more deeply the skills necessary to implement and carry out solutions and policies designed by others.

There is some overlap between the skills learned in the MPA and MPPL experiences. Both will equip you to implement policy choices and decisions made elsewhere in the organizational context. Both will give you the budgetary and administrative understanding and skills to manage in public organizations. In fact, both degrees will generally be accepted interchangeably in most hiring situations. The MPPL takes the core managerial focus of the MPA and elevates it to the level of leadership — adding skills that allow managers to become effective leaders who can mobilize organizations, communities, and people to collaborate on sustainable solutions to complex problems. These leadership, communication, and analytical skills raise the ability of students to take on new levels of problems and to increase their ability to affect change dramatically.

Online public policy courses are invaluable because they impart skills that translate well no matter your career path. U.S. News & World Report identified the following benefits of online degrees:

  • In-depth conversations with fellow classmates not possible in person
  • Opportunities to build communications and presentation skills for the future
  • Improved retention of complex or difficult concepts

An online degree allows students to learn from the best universities no matter their geographic locations. They can balance work, school, and family without lengthy commutes and classroom time. This convenience frees the time and energy necessary for success in an online MPPL or MPA degree.

Industries Employing Public Policy Leaders and Administrators

group of industry leaders in a meeting

Another aspect of the online MPPL vs. online MPA debate is the applicability of learned skills to the real world. Online public administration graduates learn how to make decisions mostly within the public-sector context. This narrow focus on government agencies and legislative bodies may not translate well to the private or nonprofit sectors.

NASPAA’s Annual Data Report offers insights into how online MPPL programs better prepare graduates for the job market. Respondents to its 2019 survey were employed in the following industries:

  • Government (49%)
  • Nonprofits (23%)
  • Private sector (17%)
  • Military (4%)

The “public” in public policy or public administration leads to assumptions that graduates are destined for the public/government sector. Less than half of graduates responding to the NASPAA survey were employed in this sector. Nonprofits, businesses, and the military look for leaders who can create and execute initiatives to lead in challenging, diverse environments.

Online MPPL programs forge the dynamic skill sets sought by employers across all industries, as well as how the sectors can work together to solve policy/political challenges. They also impart skills and lessons that are relevant in the future.

Career Paths for Online MPPLs and MPAs

Graduates of online MPA programs often follow career paths within the constraints of the public sector. Online public administration courses teach students how to navigate the expectations, resources, and restrictions of government work. The Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction lists the following career paths for online public administration graduates:

  • State legislative aides
  • Foreign service officers
  • Election supervisors
  • County clerks

Online public policy programs develop communication, data, and leadership skills sought across broader career paths. Online MPPL graduates qualify for the same jobs as online MPA graduates while keeping other options open. Online MPPL graduates are ready to rise through the ranks in careers including:

  • Corporate communications
  • Nonprofit organization marketing
  • Policy fellow
  • Community outreach manager
  • School administration
  • Elected city official

Professionals need to keep their options open as they progress through their careers. Online MPPL programs provide the flexibility necessary to future-proof their resume as they seek leadership positions.

Learning Public Policy Skills Online at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University

learning public policy

The best leaders take lessons from previous generations of leaders. Online MPPL graduates are well-positioned for leadership roles compared to their online MPA counterparts. Earning an online MPPL from a nationally recognized university further amplifies this advantage.

A Reputable School Produces Well-Rounded Graduates

U.S. News & World Report ranked Pepperdine University No. 49 in National Universities for 2021. This venerable publication placed the university among national leaders in other categories including:

  • No. 25 in Best Colleges for Veterans
  • No. 46 in Best Value Schools
  • No. 50 in Most Innovative Schools

The School of Public Policy’s full-time MPP program also received recognition from U.S. News & World Report:

  • Top 10 Policy Program in the West

The online MPPL answers the call for data-driven leadership through courses in quantitative and qualitative analysis. Additional courses in conflict resolution and organizational structure shape holistic views of leadership. The School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University also offers certificate options so online students can customize their experiences.

Students can complete any of the certificates below individually, or they can pair one with the core curriculum to achieve the comprehensive Master of Public Policy and Leadership degree:

  • Public Policy and Leadership Certificate (Core)
  • Education Policy Leadership and Innovation Certificate
  • Leadership, Advocacy, and Policy Communications Certificate
  • Local Government Leadership and Innovation Certificate

Online MPPL graduates are trained to lead while online MPA graduates learn to administer programs. The following chart shows how the online MPPL from the School of Public Policy compares to an online MPA:

Online MPPL

Online MPA

Focuses on leadership, communication, and innovation

Focuses on administration and management

Policy formation, analysis, innovation

Policy implementation, governance, and management

Applicable skills across sectors and organizations

Emphasis on public and governmental roles

Combining Public Policy with Moral Decision-Making

Online MPPL students are taught how to make ethically driven decisions that consider and incorporate diverse perspectives. The School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University separates itself from other universities by emphasizing the following in its public policy students:

  • Public policy isn’t just about government solutions but community-based approaches, which include the business and nonprofit sectors.
  • Great leaders act as great models for moral and ethical behavior.
  • Local and regional governments are ideal laboratories for policy innovations.
  • Public leaders must understand and be able to partner with people from diverse political perspectives.

Learn more about the online MPPL at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University


Interested in studying on-campus? Learn more about the on-ground Master of Public Policy program we offer at our Malibu campus.