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What is the Difference between Public Policy vs. Public Administration?

February 28, 2023

Look around you: From roads that link neighborhoods to city governments that introduce recycling programs, to people that raise funds to build playgrounds and concert venues, our world is shaped by civics and public affairs. And students who are interested in a career in these sectors can make big impacts in their communities. At CU Denver, students can choose an educational path that focuses on public administration or public affairs—but how do these degree choices differ?  

Public administration typically adheres to policy implementation, agency management roles, and organizational efficiency. Professionals in this field work to find the best methods for governments, nonprofits, or businesses to achieve policy initiatives. 

Public policy is largely research, analysis, and advocacy work. Professionals in this area advise organizations (mostly governments and nonprofits) on how to address and respond to social issues.  

The Tivoli building

Accelerated (1-Year) MPA Program

The accelerated Master of Public Administration (MPA) program prepares you to manage and lead in government and nonprofit organizations.

On a fundamental level, the debate about public administration versus public policy is much like the discussion about managing versus creating, but both fields work towards the larger goal of bettering society. The differentiating factor lies in where students want to grow their skills. Public administration lends itself towards leadership and management abilities, while public policy develops research-oriented, analytical thinking. 

At CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs (SPA), the demand for a new generation of public servants is recognized. SPA’s programs and curriculum span education policy, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, energy independence, and more, to ensure that students have a robust understanding of the issues that affect local, state, and national populations.  

In public affairs, undergraduate students can earn a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration. Additionally, two Pathways’ programs, Public Administration and Public Policy, are designed to streamline the track from bachelor’s to master’s degrees. On the graduate side, a Masters of Public Administration and Public Policy are offered, along with a PhD in Public Affairs.  

[SPA curriculum] has a normative foundation of democracy element, [asking] the question: ‘How do we maintain and support our democratic system?’

—Chris Weible, PhD, Professor and Program Director, Master of Public Policy 

CU Denver School of Public Affairs 


The School of Public Affairs at CU Denver is among the highest-ranked in the state and the nation for several programs. And SPA offers several degree programs designed to prepare students for impactful careers in the public sector. 

We have some star faculty teaching at SPA, like Cary Kennedy, who teaches our policy design class. She’s a former [Colorado] state treasurer and was a candidate for [Colorado] governor in 2018.”

—Chris Weible, PhD, Professor and Program Director, Master of Public Policy 

The Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration prepares students to lead government agencies, nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Through this program, students are encouraged to explore public service, management of people and resources, program design and evaluation, collaboration and communication across sectors, and ethical decision making. 

The pathway programs are designed so high-performing students can earn a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration along with a Master of Public Administration or Public Policy in an accelerated timeframe. The former cultivates students to become leaders and managers in local, state, and federal agencies, and in nonprofit and business organizations. The latter provides students a fundamental basis in the context and management of public service organizations and the knowledge and skills needed to design, advocate for, and analyze public policies relevant to those organizations and the larger democratic society.  

Katy Anthes

We interviewed SPA alum Katy Anthes about her time at CU Denver and her career in education.

For graduate programs, a Master of Public Administration (MPA), a Master of Public Policy (MPP), and a PhD in Public Affairs are available. The MPA and MPP give students a range of optional concentrations. For the MPA, students can choose to focus on areas such as Disasters, Hazards and Emergency Management, Education Policy, Gender-Based Violence, Public Policy Analysis, along with several other options. For the MPP, students can concentrate on Education Policy, Environmental Policy, Policy Analysis and Methods, or Policy Entrepreneurship and Advocacy.  

Like most other schools, our MPP degree is geared towards analyzing public policy. Where we differ is our emphasis on political advocacy. [We ask] how do you go out there and engage in the policy process?

—Chris Weible, PhD, Professor and Program Director, Master of Public Policy 

For the master’s programs, Weible emphasizes the required one-credit seminar class. This class eschews typical masters-level rigor commonly seen within SPA master’s-level curriculum for “[an] emphasis on building community among the students.” Since both programs can be taken online or in person, this once-a-week class allows students to create a collaborative atmosphere amongst themselves and the faculty, get exposure to key figures within the program, and create a strong student network. 

Public Sector Jobs 


Public policy and public administration degrees give students a versatile set of skills and knowledge that lend themselves to a great variety of professional fields. Each field leans heavily in government sectors, but jobs in nonprofit and business are available as well. The positions listed below, taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all require at least a bachelor’s degree in public administration or public policy. 

What Jobs can I get with a bachelor’s degree In Public Policy?  

Social Science Research Assistant | Average Salary: $69,000 

A social science research assistant helps social scientists conduct surveys and other research. Assisting in laboratory analysis, quality control, and data management are also among the responsibilities of a social science research assistant. 

Nonprofit Program Manager | Average Salary: $56,161 

Every nonprofit organization has a clear set of goals, and the nonprofit program manager ensures that projects and other initiatives are in line with these goals. The nonprofit program manager oversees budgeting, staffing, and other requirements to deliver quality outcomes to all stakeholders. 

Regulatory Affairs Manager | Average Salary: $108,213 

A regulatory affairs manager is responsible for examining, evaluating, and investigating the eligibility and conformity of products requiring government approval. Aside from filing the necessary compliance applications, a regulatory affairs manager also coordinates inspections of facilities and develops procedures to ensure compliance. 

Budget Analyst | Average Salary: $64,745 

The main role of a budget analyst is to advise organizations on the current status of their finances. A budget analyst prepares annual financial reports and other financial documents. This role also entails evaluating budget proposals by performing a cost and benefit analysis. 

What Jobs can I get with a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration? 

Urban and Regional Planners | Average Salary: $60,880 

This role works closely with government officials, developers, lawyers, social scientists, the public, and special-interest groups to discuss the planning and development of land use. They also design government plans related to land use and give insights regarding urban planning policies. 

Environmental Compliance Inspectors | Average Salary: $65,556 

Compliance investigators examine permits and licenses as well as applications and records to make certain that everything is in line with compliance requirements. They also check how hazardous materials are handled, especially their disposal. 

Budget Analyst | Average Salary: $79,940 

Budget analysts help public and private organizations plan their finances. They prepare budget reports and monitor organizational spending. They work in government agencies, private companies, and universities. 

Emergency Management Director | Average Salary: $76,730 

Emergency management directors prepare plans and procedures for responding to natural disasters or other emergencies. They also help lead the response during and after emergencies. 

Media Programming Directors | Average Salary: $96,690 

The main responsibility of this job is to plan and schedule regular programming and special event coverages. Directors of this type will have to direct activities between departments to ensure that schedules and guidelines are met. 

Court, Municipal, and License Clerks | Average Salary: $43,146 

The main functions can vary, but, in general, these roles perform clerical duties for courts of law, municipalities, or governmental licensing agencies and bureaus. They may prepare dockets of cases to be called; secure information for judges and court; prepare draft agendas or bylaws for town or city council; answer official correspondence; keep fiscal records and accounts; issue licenses or permits; and record data, administer tests, or collect fees.

Chris Weible, PhD 

Chris Weible is a professor at CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs. His research and teaching center on policy process theories and methods, democracy, and environmental policy. He serves as the co-founder and co-director for the Center for Policy and Democracy (CPD) and co-editor for Policy & Politics. He teaches courses in environmental politics, public policy and democracy, policy analysis, and research methods and design. Recent and current research includes studying policy conflicts in energy issues (e.g., siting energy infrastructure and oil and gas development), the role of emotions in public discourse, institutional analyses of the content of public policy, and patterns and explanations of policy change.  

Learn more about CU Denver’s public affairs opportunities and how you can build your career in this high-demand industry.

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