Online MPA: How does an online experience differ from on-campus?

In what capacity do you plan to make a difference in your community? You may have already explored a graduate degree such as a Master of Public Administration as a boost toward achieving your goals. Graduates of this program become better public-sector leaders, communicators, managers, researchers, and more.

However, if you’ve already done some research into MPA graduate degrees, you’ve likely come across both online and on-campus offerings, and even hybrids of on-campus and online,  from a variety of educational institutions. For example, the University of San Francisco offers an online MPA degree in addition to a suite of online and traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees. This wealth of options means you have many choices, and that can be both empowering and a bit nerve-wracking.

To help, let’s take a look at one of the first decisions you should make on your path toward an MPA degree: online or on-campus?

What is the on-campus experience like?

Before diving into what it’s like to be part of an online degree program, take a quick glance at the life of a traditional, on-campus graduate student.

Graduate school can be quite different from earning an undergraduate degree. It is more research-intensive, requiring personal drive and determination.  It could also require more time and study than your undergraduate experience.

In an on-campus graduate program, you could end up spending a lot of time in the library, your advisor’s office, or a computer lab doing research and coursework. You’ll complete a lot more hands-on learning and training than in undergrad, and that often involves more mentorship and shadowing with professionals in your specialty. Overall, the education is more technical, nuanced, and specific than general education in undergraduate programs.

The desired outcome is a mastery of your field of study or profession, so that means an education that is challenging and focused. On-campus learning means regular commuting to the school, unless you live fulltime on campus,  and likely late nights or weekends working in an on or off campus job. You’ll have more face-to-face interactions with faculty and peers, and are expected to be present during predetermined class times and other activities.

What is an online experience like?

Academically, an online MPA program can be very similar to on-campus program. The learning outcomes, faculty, quality of education, and curriculum will be roughly equivalent, depending on your institution of choice. That means you’ll be learning the same subjects and likely be taught by educators who also handle on-campus classes.

The key difference is that you don’t have to be present on campus. Online learning offers a more flexible timetable for learning than an on-campus program. One big changes is the ability to take classes asynchronously, which means you spend your hours “in class” when it suits your schedule. Coursework is shared online, so you can engage in discussions, review reading materials, watch lectures or other media, and listen to explanations or webinars when convenient, instead of on a fixed schedule in a classroom setting.

You also get less of that face-to-face interaction common in on-campus settings.  To make online learning more personal, programs use technology such as chat, phone, and video conferencing to communicate with faculty and peers. You and others in your classes will join in from wherever you have an internet connection, whether from  your office, other spaces at home, or even your favorite coffee shops or on your smartphone while commuting to and from a fulltime job.

Important considerations for your online program

Does an online graduate program intrigue you? Before enrolling, take a look at these important considerations.

  • Technology: Success in an online program relies on current technology and applications. You’ll need regular access to a computer and the internet, and also will quickly need to develop basic to moderate experience with online chat and telecommunication platforms. Make sure you also understand the technical requirements of your desired program, including how coursework is delivered and what is expected of students. The USF MPA online program offers a strong support team if you have any questions along the way.
  • Faculty: Knowing the faculty is also important for success. Learn who the online faculty are before enrollment, and after you are accepted into a program, connect with those faculty members as you take classes to get to know them better. Don’t wait to reach out until classes start, and don’t assume that you won’t continue to be engaged with at least some of your instructors throughout your program and even once you are a graduate. Their expertise is invaluable when you have questions about assignments, the materials, or anything else related to the online degree.  When faculty offer scheduled synchronous study sessions or virtual office hours, see if you can include these in your schedule as well.
  • Workspace: The third important consideration is where and when you’ll complete your online coursework. Are you a busy professional working 9 to 5? Then you may be able to study in your office before or after work or during your lunch break. Or, maybe you have a coffee shop around the corner you can be productive at, or perhaps your living room works after the kids go to bed. Many public libraries offer computers or public wi-fi as another option for getting your work done.  You can even go to campus and hang out there, too! The right workspace will differ for everyone, but you still need to know which location is best for you before starting class.

Tips to succeed in an online MPA degree
There are a few things you’ll want to remember to be successful in an online MPA degree program. Understanding the considerations above is a good first step, but you’ll also want to do some additional prep work beforehand.

First, get organized and ready to go before classes start. Get your computer and internet connection up and running, and create folders, resource documents, and other tools on your computer so you’re prepared for your first day. Second, plan more time for coursework than you think you’ll need. Leave a buffer to avoid missing deadlines and start on major assignments early whenever possible; an early check-in session with a faculty member can keep you on track on your biggest projects. Third, communicate with faculty and peers frequently. Don’t let the online format be an exercise in keeping you distant from others. Reach out, ask questions, and network. These social skills are exceedingly important in your personal and professional life, so use your online degree work to further develop them. Other students often have the same questions about a reading or an assignment as you do, so use  their knowledge as it can prove invaluable to your success.

Finally, enroll in the right online degree program for you. The University of San Francisco online MPA degree covers a curriculum in line with modern needs of a public-sector leader, with guidance from tenured faculty and expert managers in public leadership to acquaint you with management theory, public sector practice, in-depth technical skills and advanced knowledge essential to move forward in your community. Connect with an enrollment advisor today to learn more.

Recommended Readings:

Public Administration: The 4 Core Values

5 Tips on How to Find a Job With a Degree in Public Administration


U.S. News & World Report: 5 things you need to know about graduate school


U.S. News & World Report: How to compare online and on-campus graduate programs


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U.S. News & World Report: 5 tips to succeed in an online course

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