Public Administration Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a public administration degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of associate's and bachelor's degrees and potential careers.
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Studying Public Administration: Degrees at a Glance

Do you want to master business skills and apply them in public service? Earning a degree in public administration can put you on that path. Public administration studies focus on the management, funding and operations of government and non-profit organizations.

Graduates find jobs with local, state and federal government agencies or social service and community organizations. Some work in politics or for businesses closely linked to the public sector, like private government contractors and utilities. A bachelor's degree in public administration can also prepare you for a master's or law degree, which high-level positions usually require.

Employment prospects vary; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), federal government employment should fall as much as 13% from 2010-2020, but state and local government employment (excluding education and hospitals) should increase by 7%. The BLS expects an impressive 33% expansion in employment in healthcare and social assistance.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Those who seek a clerical or paraprofessional career in the public or non-profit sector Those who seek a career in analysis or administration in the public or non-profit sector
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean salary) - Eligibility interviewer for government programs ($41,000)*
- State government office worker ($39,000)*
- Budget analyst ($71,000)*
- Emergency management director ($63,000; 1-5 years related experience necessary)*
- Community services manager ($63,000; several years of social work or similar experience essential)*
Time to Completion Two years (if full-time) Four years (if full-time)
Common Graduation Requirements - Course work
- Practicum or internship (may be optional)
- Course work
- Practicum or internship
- Senior capstone project or thesis (sometimes only for honors track)
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Online degrees and mixed programs Online degrees and mixed programs

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate's Degree in Public Administration

Associate's degree programs blend general education components with social science courses and classes that cover the specific skills and knowledge that public administrators need, like accounting, emergency planning and personnel management. Many programs also include an internship or other hands-on experience that can help ease students' way into the job market. Some programs, mindful of students who are already working professionals, may grant academic credits for life experience. However you earn them, credits can normally be transferred to a bachelor's program at a four-year institution. Although they provide an entry into the world of public administration, keep in mind that with this degree you may have to settle for an administrative/clerical position.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Normally completed in two years
  • Can usually be applied to earning a bachelor's degree
  • Teaches administrative skills that many kinds of organizations and businesses value
  • Prepares you for careers that allow you to make a difference in your community

Cons

  • A bachelor's degree is often needed for jobs above the clerical level
  • Availability of programs depends on your location (in 2012, there were only 63 programs in 25 states offering associate's in public policy or administration, according to the U.S. Department of Education)*
  • Public administration employment is not immune from economic downturns

Source: *National Center for Education Statistics (June 2012 figures).

Courses and Requirements

Associate's degree programs typically require a few core courses in public administration and introductory classes in economics and government. Expect also to take additional classes in related social sciences like psychology, in math and in specific administrative areas, such as human resources or budgeting. General education requirements fill out the course load, including classes in writing and communication. An internship or practicum may be offered, which can be very useful.

Examples of classes you may be able to choose from:

  • Survey and opinion research
  • Public personnel management
  • Public organization theories
  • Preparing for disasters and emergencies
  • Grants and fundraising
  • National governance in the U.S.

Online Course Info

There are associate's degree programs in public administration that can be completed entirely online and others that mix online and on-campus classes. Both kinds generally have the same features and types of courses as fully on-campus programs. But be aware that some schools with both online and in-person options may not offer as many classes in distance learning format each semester as they do on-campus. So you may need to plan your studies more carefully when pursuing an online or mixed degree.

Stand Out with this Degree

Internships, volunteering and other hands-on experience can boost your marketability while you explore options in your chosen field. Your program may include an internship in its curriculum. If it doesn't - or even if it does - you can seek out opportunities on your own. Interning and volunteering are well-established practices in the public and non-profit sectors, and there are many programs and information sources.

If you are passionate about a particular cause or issue, check VolunteerMatch's website to see which relevant organizations need volunteers. If federal employment is your goal, you can consult the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Pathways program, which provides information on opportunities for students and recent graduates throughout the federal government. If you are not sure what area of public administration interests you most, ask someone at your school's career office or a faculty advisor about local opportunities.

For many entry-level positions, you'll need to have basic computer skills, such as word processing and spreadsheets. You can learn basic much-used programs like Microsoft Word and Excel on your own or through online tutorials offered through the company for free.

Degree Alternatives

You may find that your career prospects in public administration are somewhat restricted if you have only an associate's degree. If two more years of schooling for a bachelor's degree is too much, then an associate's degree in paralegal studies may be a better alternative. You can still work in the public or non-profit sector. Government agencies, non-profits and healthcare organizations hire paralegals. While some employers prefer graduates of four-year programs, an associate's degree in paralegal studies is sufficient for many positions. According to the BLS, the average salary for paralegals in 2011 was $50,000. Employment of paralegals will increase by 18% from 2010-2020, the BLS predicts.

Bachelor's Degree in Public Administration

Bachelor's degree programs cover the same basic topics and skills as associate's degree programs, but in greater depth over four years. Along with fulfilling general education requirements, students take an interdisciplinary mix of social science and administrative courses. Some programs have specialized tracks in areas like urban planning that can provide more focused career preparation. You'll find more jobs available to you at this degree level, though some positions still require a master's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Graduates find work with a broad range of employers, including all levels of government, non-profits and businesses connected to the public sector
  • Many programs include an internship or other workplace-based experience that can serve as excellent preparation for the job market
  • A wide range of programs nationwide (as of 2012, there were 269 bachelor's programs in public administration or policy in 44 states, according to the U.S. Department of Education)
  • Careers in public administration generally offer the satisfaction of serving your community or fellow citizens

Cons

  • Higher-level positions may require a master's or law degree
  • Public sector workers are better educated and older on average than workers in the private sector, which may make it harder to work your way up
  • Employment decisions in public administration are sometimes dependent on political considerations

Common Courses and Requirements

In bachelor's degree programs, students take courses in the structures and functions of government at various levels and of other public and non-profit organizations. They also study the management of financial, human and IT resources and methods for assessing policies and performance, such as statistics and opinion research. For their remaining required credits, students normally choose among related social science courses and more specialized classes in such areas as healthcare or disaster response. In the last year, there is often a capstone project or thesis, an internship or both, in which students apply their knowledge to a real-world situation or issue.

Examples of classes that you may take:

  • Public finance and budgeting
  • Research methodology in public administration
  • Leadership in public organizations
  • Information technology in government
  • Ethics in public management
  • Municipal governance

Online Degree & Course Info

There are both fully and partially online options available among the many bachelor's degree programs in public administration. Distance learning options generally mirror on-campus programs in terms of requirements and subjects taught. Some, but not all, online degree programs include a capstone project as a final achievement.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Volunteering and interning are great ways to gain experience and contacts in public administration, according to the BLS. Your degree program may include an internship or other work-based experience. For additional experience, or if your school's options do not fit well with your aspirations, there are many ways to find opportunities on your own. Interested in a political career? Become a volunteer campaign worker. Is your dream job with a certain federal agency? Find out if it employs interns. Non-profits have been known to welcome walk-in volunteers.

Bachelor's degree candidates in public administration can also take advantage of well-established internship programs. The Washington Center, for example, works with hundreds of colleges and universities to place students in semester-long or summer internships that garner academic credit. Around a third of its placements are in federal agencies. The Washington Center and the Washington Internship Institute, a similar program, charge fees comparable to the cost of a semester in college. But scholarships and other forms of financial aid are available.

Whether you apply to a fee-charging internship program or approach prospective employers directly, be sure to consider carefully the actual work offered. Will you have substantive, skill-building assignments or will you be making copies? Remember that acquiring valuable work experience and making useful contacts for the future are your primary goals - not just filling space on your résumé.

Finally, depending upon your desired position, you'll want to make sure you have the basic computer skills required. For example, as a budget analyst, you'll work with spreadsheet programs, such as the aforementioned Microsoft Excel. You'll want to learn some of the more advanced functions this program provides, such as database functions and financial analysis.

Popular Schools

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Purdue University Global

  • BS in Liberal Studies Leadership

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Regent University

  • Bachelor of Arts in Government - American Government and Politics
  • Bachelor of Arts in Political Communication
  • Bachelor of Arts in Politics and History

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Saint Leo University

  • BA: Liberal Studies

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