Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Help! What degree should I get for a career in affordable housing?

by Eva Wingren, Young Leaders in Affordable Housing

For people in the age cohort targeted by the Young Leaders in Affordable Housing, extensive post-bachelor’s education might be required to even get a foot in the door for some of the highly technical careers in housing. On the other hand, with skyrocketing levels of student loan debt, it is important to choose your graduate degree program wisely. This blog series will feature the personal experiences of YLAH members with a variety of different graduate degrees to help you determine which type of program will help you accomplish your career goals.

Masters of Public Administration

I earned a Masters of Public Administration at the public university in my home state. It was a somewhat recession-motivated decision to go back to school only one year after undergrad. I had very little idea of what I wanted to do, other than somehow be of service. I laugh a little now when folks approach me for informational interviews saying they want to “work in nonprofits,” because that encompasses basically everything under the sun, but I was that person not too long ago. I chose the MPA program because I figured it would be general enough to be of use no matter what I chose to specialize in.

What to expect

An MPA is sometimes jokingly referred to as an MBA for nonprofits, and there is a lot of truth to that. I took classes in budgeting, economics, management and strategic analysis. The hard numbers classes have really helped when I have attempted real estate finance. And as for economics, the housing market is full of market failures, where demand is constrained far below supply by things like production costs and housing quality codes. I spent the year between undergrad and grad school in Southeast Asia, where there is far less chronic street homelessness, but also far worse housing conditions and a lack of urban planning, so that’s one of the tradeoffs America has made, and it’s helpful to be able to talk about that from an economics perspective. Finally, there are public policy classes, but they are more about what a policy should be rather than how to gain the influence to get it enacted. In addition, you’ll have to take about a third of your classes in a subject discipline. I created my own urban policy sub-discipline using classes from the Master of Real Estate Development program in the urban planning school.

Why an MPA?

The beauty of an MPA is that it can prepare you for a wide variety of careers, with sufficient targeting on your part. I think an MPA would be appropriate for anyone who wants to work at a nonprofit, think tank or government agency. For trade associations or more government affairs-type work, an MPP or a law degree might give you an edge, but an MPA would also give you the necessary skills. My peers were at many different levels in their careers, and some had founded their own nonprofits. I consider my peers to have been a huge learning resource. Had I gone straight into the working world, I don’t think I would have been exposed to so many different ideas, work styles and potential career trajectories.

Use your career services department!

My career services department was probably the best part of the MPA program. Department staff helped me get the internship that got me interested in housing. They prepped me for interviews intensively in my final semester and have continued to stay in touch three years later as I undertake another job search. I worked part time at two paid internships as I worked toward my degree, and graduated with a strong network in the housing field and two job offers. I would encourage returning students to ask questions about your grad school’s career services offerings, and use them throughout your time there. I also think that interning during your degree, or better yet, keeping your job and going to school part time, puts you in a much stronger position than leaving a job to pursue school again fulltime.

You might be a good candidate for an MPA program if you want to spend some time exploring your career options and obtaining hard skills that will work in a variety of contexts.

As President of the Young Leaders in Affordable Housing, Eva is passionate about connecting the next generation of housing leaders to each other and to the training, resources and opportunities that they will need to end homelessness and housing instability in America in her lifetime. She has worked at Mercy Housing and is a former Fulbright scholar to Malaysia. 

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