MBA vs. Other Master’s Programs

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A master of business administration (MBA) degree is one of the most widely recognized graduate-level degrees available, but that does not mean that it is the only one available to business professionals. Other graduate-level programs can offer a similarly prestigious degree with a more specialized education—and sometimes at a lower cost. When it comes to their features, how do these programs compare to the MBA?

An MBA offers a broad set of foundational business skills in accounting, finance, and marketing that can be applied to several disciplines. Students may choose to specialize in one of several areas, but those modules make up a small portion of the overall education. An MBA generally takes two full-time years to complete but can last from one to six years.

How do other degrees stack up in comparison to the MBA? Which one is right for you? Read on to get some head-to-head comparisons between the MBA and other graduate-level degrees.

MBA vs. Engineering School

Those who pursue graduate-level degrees in engineering are often most interested in taking on a leadership role within their specific engineering discipline, while simultaneously advancing their technical knowledge.

Graduate engineering programs have a similar duration to MBA programs, but tuition rate can be significantly less. Tuition for the graduate-level engineering program at Stanford University, for example, is approximately 30 percent lower per year than that of the MBA program.

The structure of a graduate engineering program blends coursework and research. These are advanced and technical plans of study with hands-on experience in the latest engineering advancements. With a foundational understanding of engineering, students dive deeply into the nuances of a specific discipline.

Graduate-level engineering programs have the majority of their specializations baked into the major. Engineering programs are typically titled according to a specific field of engineering, such as biomedical, chemical, computer mechanical, aerospace, civil, or nuclear engineering. These programs offer expert-level education in a particular dimension of engineering, providing technical mastery and innovative research exposure, ensuring that graduates are experts in their sector.

Those interested in becoming a business leader in their field can consider a master of engineering management (MEM) or an MBA with an engineering or high technology management specialization. A MEM degree focuses on advanced management and administration with a particular focus on engineering. However, it does so at the cost of breadth. Graduate-level engineering degrees are for those who want to plant a firm stake in the engineering field and put their technical expertise at the forefront.

MBA vs. MHA

Those seeking to further a career in healthcare administration, managed care analysis, health insurance administration, or healthcare consultancy may choose to pursue a master of health administration (MHA) degree.

MHA programs take about the same time to complete as most MBA programs, with similar part-time or accelerated options. Credit requirements tend to mirror MBA programs; however, tuition rates are generally lower than those for MBAs. The MHA at George Washington University, for example, is about 20 percent less expensive than its MBA counterpart.

The structure of MHA and MBA programs are similar, too, although the MHA curriculum focuses on the business applications within healthcare specifically. Core classes in finance and accounting in an MHA program, for example, explore each topic as it relates to healthcare. While some MBA programs offer specializations in healthcare management or health informatics, MHA programs use that industry as a starting point and provide further specializations such as healthcare operations, healthcare informatics, health policy, health finance, and quality of care.

MHA programs replace breadth with depth, and their graduates enter the healthcare field with an intricate understanding of the many intersections between business and healthcare. The deeper focus on healthcare means that MHA graduates may have a harder time transitioning their core skills to other areas and industries. An MHA is for those who are committed to working in healthcare, while an MBA with a healthcare specialization is for those who want to be able to interact with the healthcare industry while maintaining their career in business more broadly.

MBA vs. MPA

A master of public administration (MPA) degree can be seen as an MBA that is tweaked for the public sector. Future policy analysts, county officials, city managers, and NGO administrators pursue MPA degrees to gain a nonprofit perspective on the finance, management, and operations of social organizations.

Like an MHA, an MPA program typically takes the same amount of time to complete as an MBA, but is less expensive, on average. The MPA program at the University of Southern California, for example, is about 25 percent less expensive than its MBA counterpart. However, the math becomes complicated post-graduation. MBA graduates earn, on average, significantly more than MPA graduates, according to data from Payscale, meaning that MBA holders can typically repay their tuition and turn a profit more quickly.

That said, MPA programs are not as concerned about turning a profit. While they are similarly structured to MBA programs—with core classes and electives that include finance, accounting, and management—their primary focus is on achieving social good. Specializations available in MPA programs reflect that aim, with opportunities to concentrate in healthcare policy, education policy, environmental policy, nonprofit administration, and international development.

MPA programs are acutely focused on the nonprofit and public sector. Several MBA programs offer a specialization in public policy, but an MPA degree is for those who wish to deprioritize the study of profit and instead become experts in effecting social good. Since fewer people pursue MPA degrees, those who achieve them distinguish themselves for jobs and careers that emphasize knowledge of public policy and administration.

MBA vs. Law School

Law schools are for lawyers, but not necessarily those who spend their time in courtrooms. Every industry intersects with the law in some way, and people with a law degree—either a juris doctorate (JD) or a master of laws (LLM)—can have a variety of critical roles in business, management, policy, entertainment, engineering, and more, performing in various functions without ever stepping foot in a courtroom.

Law schools almost always take at least three years to complete, making it a longer commitment than an MBA. That extra year of school also means an extra year of tuition. Consider Stanford Law School, where the tuition is more than $60,000 a year, and compare that with Stanford Business School, where the MBA program is around $70,000 a year, and the difference becomes stark. Tuition rates for law schools can vary dramatically, especially between public and private institutions, but the average debt-to-earnings ratio is higher for law school graduates than MBA graduates, according to Poets & Quants.

The curriculum in law school is almost always based on the case method of teaching, and the first year is usually spent covering foundational topics such as civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, legal writing, and other similar subjects. The second and third years proceed into more advanced areas, with the matter of emphasis varying depending on the school and a student’s chosen specialization.

The law is vast, and specializations in law are myriad: business, environment, tax, healthcare, or intellectual property, among many others. Some MBA programs offer concentrations in tangentially related areas such as taxation, fraud, and criminal justice, but they do not compare with the intricacies of a law degree specialization.

Those interested in practicing law have to go to law school, and the degree they earn will be a mark of distinction on their CV no matter what career path. However, the extra time, money, and testing required for law school can be a significant barrier to entry, especially for those only minimally interested in practicing law.

MBA vs. Other Business Programs

Graduate-level programs in siloed business disciplines exist for applicants who know exactly what they want to study and practice in the business arena. These programs offer specialized master’s degrees in finance, human resources, accounting, and marketing.

In contrast to an MBA with a concentration in the area of interest, these programs do not typically offer foundational business courses, focusing instead on the subject matter more in-depth. As a result, many can be completed in a shorter timeframe. What’s more, they tend to be less costly—although it is not always the case. Ohio University, for example, offers both an MBA and a MAcc (master of accountancy) program, but the difference in tuition is negligible at under 5 percent.

Specialized programs such as these expect students to have strong foundational knowledge of the subject at hand, preferably with a similar bachelor’s degree. All the classes in these programs—including the core courses—will be focused on the specialization area. Electives exist to dive more into the nuances of the discipline, and any study of other topics only serve to support and relate back to the central area of focus.

Specialization programs go faster, leaner, and deeper than their MBA counterparts, but they may sacrifice breadth, lack an interdisciplinary flavor, and leave no wiggle room for changing focus areas. While MBA programs offer concentrations in finance, HR, accounting, and marketing, the more targeted degrees are for those who have already figured out their discipline, career, and roadmap through the business world.

The Bottom Line

An MBA goes wide where other master’s programs go deep. The focus of specialized degrees means that no time is wasted in diving further into the subject. However, the breadth of study present in an MBA program means that the acquired skills are more immediately portable into any number of different business-related industries.

Those who know they want to work in healthcare, public administration, or engineering might be better suited to enroll in one of these specialized programs. Those on the fence can consider an MBA. Consider the MBA a passport to a slew of different areas, and think of a specialized degree as the fast track to a singular destination.