It’s a little joke Sandra Archibald likes to tell Master of Public Administration (MPA) students at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. “The public sector,” the dean says, “gets the problems that business schools and law schools can’t solve.”

There’s a lot of truth behind that joke. As the dean goes on to note, unlike a number of problems faced by the law and business professions, long-term governmental problems require a knowledge of policy development that is created in an environment where the employers are not the boss. The clients -- the citizens -- are. As stakeholders, they want to have a say in the business of government. As taxpayers, they want input on the way the resources they fund are used. To manage in this environment, Archibald says, one needs a complex set of skills.

That’s what MPAs provide. The MPA program has long been the go-to training resource for careers in the public and nonprofit sectors. Although they started out 100 years ago as a research arm of state government, state university MPA programs have evolved to become publically offered, academically oriented degrees. In keeping with today’s demands, the programs also teach students to work with government bureaucracy, develop networking skills, deal with contractors, and understand fiscal accountability and transparency.

But now, many of these programs are threatened, particularly those at public universities where a large chunk of funding comes from state coffers. The continuing budget crunch is squeezing these institutions, which are, in turn, looking for programs to cut. The situation has raised the specter in some states of defunding these programs. If that happens, how would a loss of MPA programs affect the public workforce?

The MPA program’s future is unfolding in two directions. In one, some universities are succumbing to the budget crunch and are considering eliminating MPA programs. In the other, some public administration schools are seizing on these challenges and finding ways to adapt. “The downturn,” says Laurel McFarland, the executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), “has opened up some new strategic options to not only survive, but to thrive.”

The Evans School of Public Affairs is a case in point. When the University of Washington faced a system-wide budget squeeze, university officials targeted small, professional programs that they believed could not survive without a larger pot of state funds. The Evans School was on that list, but its faculty, administration, students and alumni fought back, testifying before the Legislature, holding town hall meetings and going door-to-door. “Our students knew how to navigate the political system,” Archibald says, “because we train them for that.” After the students and faculty presented a full accounting of the financial stability of the program, the university allowed the MPA program to stay in business. But the Evans School isn’t playing it safe. It has maintained its quality while increasing the program scale and keeping tuition low. Archibald says this is possible by “practicing what we teach: working with a decentralized organization, using technology to streamline operations, and constantly evaluating and improving program performance.” All of these factors are important for what Archibald calls the “degree of the decade.”

At the University of Arizona (UA), the MPA program was housed in the business school, where it essentially got lost. When budgets were slashed, the MPA program rose to the top of the business school’s list of cuts. “The plan was to just get rid of us, to literally end the school,” says Brint Milward, director of UA’s School of Government and Public Policy. Milward worked with the head of the political science program to merge the two programs into a separate school. “It became clear to the administration here at the University of Arizona that a lot of bad things would happen if the school was eliminated,” Milward says. “You wouldn’t be educating a workforce for the public and nonprofit sectors.”

Since opening as a separate school, the MPA program has doubled in size, but not only because it’s more visible to prospective students. Milward and his colleagues also set out to make the program more accessible to state, local and federal government employees, as well as those interested in joining the public and nonprofit sectors. With the school’s Tucson location, government is the name of the game -- eight of the 10 largest companies in the region are government oriented says Milward. Reaching this market has involved moving to an evening MPA program, bringing the classes to downtown Tucson and reaching out to good-government groups in the area.

Despite these successes, the program has faced continued challenges. State funding for the university has gone from 33 percent of the school budget to only 10 percent, and that means overall tuition and fees have increased. Within the MPA program, however, the cost per student credit hour is lower than any other unit. “We want to be the low-cost provider” of public-sector education, says Milward, so “we’ve had to be extremely creative.” The program has managed to increase its faculty from 10 to 25 members, some of whom are currently practicing in the public sector. This has added a real-world element to the MPA curriculum.

Not all the public MPA stories are as heartening as Arizona’s and Washington’s. The University of Maine offered both a public management undergraduate degree -- the oldest in the country -- and an MPA program. When the university’s budget was slashed, the university’s president and provost recommended that both the undergraduate public management and graduate MPA programs be eliminated. The university’s faculty fought back, as did students and alumni, but to no avail. “The University of Maine’s top administrators are unwavering in their intent to eliminate the university’s undergraduate and graduate programs,” says Kenneth Nichols, a professor of public administration at the university, “and the department itself.”

Beginning in June 2010, the university closed admissions for both the graduate and undergraduate programs, though it remains committed to teaching students currently in the program. The department will officially shutter in August 2012. Its closing presents a significant problem for training the state’s workforce. The university had been offering its MPA program at two campuses -- most notably at the Augusta campus -- and across the state through distance-education videoconferencing. This made the program easily accessible to current government employees.

But Maine’s MPA program is not dead -- at least not yet. A potential solution is to reorganize the program and move the MPA into the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. If the reorganization is confirmed this September, the Muskie School will work toward reaccreditation with NASPAA, and would accept all of the students currently in the MPA program at the University of Maine. Most of the MPA curriculum would be offered through distance education with some residency periods. “We think this is a practical, efficient model,” says Mark Lapping, executive director of the Muskie School. “The capacity at the Muskie School is far larger than the capacity in public policy studies at the University of Maine.”

MPA programs can be a valuable resource, given the size of the government sector in the overall economy. When taking into account all government functions, including health care and education, government makes up more than 40 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Of the more than 150 million people in the nation’s workforce, nearly 20 million work in government.

With that large a stake in the economy, MPA advocates argue it’s important to maintain quality through education. It’s also important for them to make changes that reflect a changing world -- something that might not come as naturally to programs steeped in local issues.

But many of the programs are moving up and on, and regional collaboration is growing. “It’s a big part of where we’re going,” Milward says, “not just in the United States, but all over the world.”

At the Evans School, for instance, a focus on cross-border collaboration has manifested itself in an exchange program with New York University. MPA students at each of the schools can transfer to the other school for one year to gain experience and understanding of the shared challenges and how innovative policies can be spread across the country. That, Archibald says, helps produce national service leaders that can work at any level of government in any part of the country.

The MPA programs have another area to breach -- going where the students are. This has usually been the strong suit for private institutions. Universities like Columbia and Harvard offer MPA programs in a variety of cities. But these executive programs can become expensive. The task of providing access at a reasonable price falls to public institutions. In developing such a model for continuing education students, public MPA programs have their challenges cut out for them. Arizona State University is one of a half dozen major state universities working on this issue with an online MPA program that will offer classes to a government audience more conveniently and at less cost.

Whatever the future holds, the important thing, says NASPAA’s McFarland, is that MPA programs continue to create a strong public workforce that meets the needs of today’s citizens. “Some programs have really taken hits from the fiscal conditions,” she says. “But they’re fighting, they’re figuring out, they’re thinking hard. They’re not giving up -- they’re doing some really innovative things.”