Master’s in health administration vs. master’s in public health: 3 ways the programs differ

BY Meghan MalasApril 25, 2022, 1:22 PM

The Tulane University president’s residence is decorated for Mardi Gras, as seen in February 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

If you are looking to elevate your career in health care, you may find yourself deliberating between what type of advanced degree you should pursue to get the job you want. Both a master’s in health administration (MHA) degree and master’s in public health (MPH) degree will help you get ahead in fast-growing roles in health care, but these career paths can differ in the versatility of jobs available, salary, and the programs’ curriculums.

Medical and health services manager jobs, which are commonly filled by people with a MHA degree, are expected to grow 32% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Jobs for epidemiologists, which can be held by people with MPH degrees, are expected to grow by 30% over that same 10-year period. 

Both programs are comparable in cost, with a wide range of tuition amounts depending on the institution. MHA and MPH programs also do not always require particular academic or work experience to be admitted.

To sort out the differences between a master’s degree program in public health and a master’s degree program in health administration, Fortune spoke with Suzanne Chase, assistant dean for enrollment management and admissions at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Below are three of the biggest differences she highlighted.

Master’s of public health: ‘A super broad degree’

As the name implies, a master’s degree in public health prepares graduates to work on issues related to public health, including in hospitals, government agencies, academia, and more.

“The gist of it is that MPH is a super broad degree and it has many different specialties,” Chase says. “You could do anything from biostatistics or epidemiology, all the way to health policy, international health or sustainable development.” 

Most schools have specified tracks within their MPH programs to prepare students for the domain of health care they choose. Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine offers 12 different tracks in their MPH program, four of which are offered online. 

It is not uncommon to switch tracks after starting the program, Chase says.  

“When you’re taking those foundational classes, it might be your first exposure to a specific lens or discipline within public health,” she says. “So, our programs have electives built into the MPH curriculum, because we anticipate that public health students will have many different interests when they come in.”

Master’s in hospital administration: A degree for executives

Meanwhile, MHA degree programs are typically designed for a more specific set of jobs than MPH programs. A master’s in health administration prepares graduates for management careers in the health care industry, like C-suite executive roles within public and private hospitals, clinics, and long-term care institutions. 

MHA degree holders can also become health information managers, nursing home managers, medical and health services managers, financial analysts, or chief operating officers.

“While someone with an MPH degree can get one of these executive positions, most facilities look for professionals with an MHA degree,” Chase says.

Does one degree lead to higher earnings than another?

Salaries are all across the board for MPH holders. The median annual pay for community health workers was $42,000 in 2020 and epidemiologists had a median pay of $74,560 per year, according to the BLS. Meanwhile, a senior biostatistician makes a median wage of more than $137,000 a year, according to ZipRecruiter. 

Pay for MHA holders tend to be a bit higher, by nature of the leadership positions that graduates typically go on to pursue. Medical and health services managers made a median base salary of $104,280 in 2020. Health Care Administrators make a median base salary of $87,000, according to Glassdoor. 

Wages are indicative of funding in those industries, Chase says. “Local or county health departments aren’t going to be paying you six figures to do program planning and assessment, but a hospital system that’s making millions or billions of dollars can afford to pay their leadership more.”

How do the curriculums of MPH and MHA programs differ?

Put simply, the MPH is a broader degree that allows for more electives, while the MHA is more prescribed. 

“The MHA is kind of like the MBA that’s specific to health care,” she says, adding that MHA courses cover topics like the leadership of health care organizations, analytics, economics, finance, management, population health, communications, and strategy.

The curriculum for the MPH program consists of a core curriculum of introductory courses on topics like biostatistics, epidemiology, and then specific courses to match the track a student selects. 

At Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, both programs take about two years to complete for full-time students. The MHA program is 54 credits, whereas the MPH program is usually around 45 credits, depending on the MPH track a student enrolls in. 

“The programs can look pretty similar in terms of how they are structured and there’s no experience or specific coursework required for admission into either program,” Chase says.

While Tulane’s MHA and MPH programs accept students from all majors, Chase notes that a lot more business majors will go into the MHA, whereas the MPH has students from a broad range of disciplines. 

One piece of advice Chase gives prospective students who are unsure of which degree to pursue is to visit jobs website and look at the credentials for the occupation you want. Then, speak to the faculty and admissions staff at your potential schools and see which program will give you the right qualifications.

“It is important to do your research beforehand,” she says.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programs, business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.


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