A public policy bachelor's degree prepares you for a variety of rewarding and growing fields. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for social and community service managers will grow by 18% between 2016 and 2026. This is more than double the average rate of growth for all other occupations in the United States.
This page offers an overview of online public policy degrees, including information on application requirements, coursework, and possible career paths after graduation. It also explains the importance of accreditation and directs graduates to some of the leading professional organizations in public policy.
Overview of Public Policy Degrees
Public policy involves the study of legislative and administrative functions at the local, state, and national levels. The practice of public policy requires an understanding of the law, politics, economics, and administration.
Students who earn a degree in public policy can take on many different jobs. For example, public policy professionals might oversee the financial operations of a small town, or they might analyze policy at the federal level by shaping the work of Congress or the executive branch. Many graduates of public policy programs lead nonprofit organizations, strengthening their local communities by offering healthcare, education, and other services.
The BLS projects strong demand for public policy professionals in the coming years. For instance, employment for medical and health services managers, or administrators who create and implement policy at hospitals and health centers, will grow by 20% through 2026. In 2017, the median health manager earned $98,350, more than double the national median salary.
Public policy tends to attract individuals who want to serve others. As they allow students to watch lectures and complete assignments entirely on their own schedule, online public policy programs may particularly appeal to working professionals looking to change careers.
To earn an undergraduate public policy degree, you must typically first hold either a high school diploma or a GED. Many programs also require applicants to maintain a certain GPA during high school, usually 2.5 or higher. In addition, you may need to submit results from either the SAT or the ACT. While schools usually do not set minimum scores for these exams, you may consider retaking the SAT if you score lower than 1000. Similarly, you may want to retake the ACT if you score lower than 20.
Along with high school transcripts and entrance exam scores, expect to submit up to three letters of recommendation from teachers, employers, and community leaders. Try to give your recommenders at least two months to write and submit your letters.
Finally, you may need to write a brief personal essay outlining your qualifications and your academic or professional goals. Consider this an opportunity to highlight your strengths, and provide additional context to any weaknesses in your application materials.
Generally, online programs do not require admissions interviews. After submitting your materials, a school may choose to admit you, deny your application, or place you on their wait list, meaning you may ultimately earn a spot in a program if another admitted student drops out.
What Will I Learn?
Most bachelor's programs in public policy consist of 120 credits and take full-time students about four years to complete. Roughly 50-60 credits cover general education topics such as mathematics, English, and the social and behavioral sciences. Another 30 credits make up the public policy core and cover foundational subjects like economics, American and comparative politics, and policy analysis.
To earn their final 20-30 credits, students can choose from a slate of electives. These electives typically form the basis of a policy concentration in areas such as environmental policy, healthcare policy, or urban policy.
Though not always required, many programs also strongly encourage their students to complete an internship at a local government agency or nonprofit organization. An internship allows you to develop practical skills and begin growing your professional network.
Six courses commonly found in public policy undergraduate programs are detailed below.
This course provides a broad introduction to the national political system in the United States. Students learn about the three branches of government and the roles that political parties, interest groups, and the mass media play in shaping politics and policy. The course emphasizes the perspective of the framers of the Constitution and how they created mechanisms to address problems even in the modern day.
In this class, students develop knowledge and skills related to the administration of government agencies and organizations promoting the public interest. Topics covered include personnel and financial management, laws and regulations, and the structure of state and local governments. Students also examine career opportunities and professional ethics within the field.
Microeconomics is the study of individuals and firms within a larger economic system. It involves concepts such as supply, demand, pricing, and the allocation of scarce resources. Students in this course review the idea of a market failure and how public policy can help restore efficiency and effectiveness to failing markets.
Macroeconomics examines the behavior and decision-making of an economy as a whole. Here, students learn about gross domestic products, unemployment, and how various sectors of the economy interact. Increasingly, courses in macroeconomics also help students understand international trade and finance. Taken together, these two courses give students the tools to shape economic policy.
Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation
Assessing policy interventions and programs plays a key role in effectively delivering public services. For example, students in this class may learn how to determine whether an investment in K-12 education improves career opportunities and reduces unemployment in a particular community. This course also teaches students how to share the results of their analyses with the public.
Public Policy Capstone
A capstone course allows students to apply their learning to a real-world public policy issue. You may, for instance, partner with a local community organization to help it launch a youth-driven advocacy campaign. In programs that do not offer a capstone, students can usually participate in internships at government offices or nonprofit groups.
What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor's Degree in Public Policy?
Earning a public policy degree online opens up a variety of career paths. For example, you may work for an agency that oversees the funding of public schools in your state. You could also pursue a career in journalism, using your expertise in public policy to inform your coverage of government and politics.
Regardless of the path you choose, jobs in public policy require above-average communication, organizational, and analytical skills. A bachelor's program can help you hone these skills.
While you can expect to develop many different skills in public policy programs, three core competencies stand above the rest.
First, these programs help students learn to communicate effectively, through both the written and spoken word. Whether studying international political systems or the laws that govern municipalities, public policy students practice sharing ideas and debating with their classmates, preparing them for the responsibility of working with diverse interests and engaging the public in decision-making processes.
Second, these programs allow you the opportunity to hone leadership and managerial skills. Students learn how to create budgets and identify sources of revenue. They explore the theory and practice behind personnel management, learning how to motivate employees and navigate bureaucracies. You may also study subjects like organizational development, strategic planning, and the management of information technology resources.
Finally, these programs teach you how to analyze policies and assess programs. Coursework in research methods and evaluation introduces students to the fundamentals of analyzing data and translating study findings into real-world interventions. Students come to understand how to use quantitative and qualitative data to determine the effectiveness of a given program or regulation. This foundation in research also plays a critical role in preparing some students to continue their education at the graduate level.
Potential Careers and Salaries
Many graduates of online public policy programs take on jobs in government. You may hope to serve your community as director of your town's public works department or shape federal policy as a congressional aide.
Other students plan to enter the nonprofit sector. A public policy degree prepares you for a variety of leadership roles, including social and community service manager or medical and health services manager. A bachelor's can also qualify you for advocacy and analyst positions at think tanks or public interest firms.
Finally, you may choose to apply your expertise in public policy to a tangentially related field. For example, you may work as a market research analyst for an aerospace company, monitoring legislation and policy developments to take advantage of new business opportunities.
You can read more about five common careers for public policy graduates below.
Annual Median Salary: $56,132
Policy analysts conduct public policy research and study legislation. They may author bills or proposed regulations, advocate for changes to existing policies, or advise organizations on how to implement policy. Most analysts work for the government or lobbying firms.
Market Research Analyst
Annual Median Salary: $63,230
Market research analysts study market conditions to inform sales practices or strategic planning. Analysts with a background in public policy may work within industries that collaborate closely with government agencies, such as defense contractors of healthcare providers.
Annual Median Salary: $39,365
Journalists investigate and report the news. While some journalists may cover various topics, most specialize in a particular one. A journalist who writes stories on politics, the legislative process, or possible government corruption can benefit greatly from undergraduate education in public policy.
Public Policy Associate
Annual Median Salary: $49,247
Although they may perform many of the same functions as policy analysts, associates tend to focus more exclusively on shaping, rather than studying, public policy. They may lobby government officials, create and lead advocacy campaigns, or develop partnerships with other interest groups to advance their agenda.
Social and Community Service Manager
Annual Median Salary: $64,100
Social and community service managers hold broad responsibility for the delivery of public services and the management of nonprofit groups. These managers create budgets, hire and supervise staff, design and evaluate programs, and serve as the public representatives of their organizations.
Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Public Policy?
You can qualify for many entry- and mid-level roles with just a bachelor's in public policy. In fact, many professionals advance significantly in this field with an undergraduate degree and work experience.
However, some supervisory and specialized roles may require graduate-level education. For example, towns may prefer to hire municipal managers who possess a master's in public administration (MPA). Positions in healthcare administration may also require an MPA, while leadership roles in the education sector may even require a relevant doctorate.
If you want to deepen your expertise in public policy without commiting to a program, consider earning a graduate certificate instead. Certificate programs allow individuals with a bachelor's to develop new skills at a significantly lower cost. If you later choose to pursue an advanced degree, you can often apply the credits you earned in a certificate program as well.
Accreditation for Public Policy Bachelor's Programs
Make sure to attend an accredited online public policy program. If you attend an unaccredited program, you risk missing out on state and federal financial aid opportunities. Future employers may not recognize your degree, and other schools may not allow you to transfer credit or continue your education at the graduate level.
For bachelor's programs in public policy, find a college or university that holds either regional or national accreditation. Most public and nonprofit institutions seek out regional accreditation, generally considered the more prestigious of the two forms. Seven bodies, such as the Higher Learning Commission and the New England Commission of Higher Education, oversee the regional accreditation process.
If you plan to attend a for-profit school, it may instead hold national accreditation. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission, for example, provides national accreditation to many online programs.
To find out if your institution holds regional or national accreditation, review the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's online directory of schools.
Public Policy Professional Organizations
After you earn a public policy degree online, consider joining a professional organization to help you take the next step in your career. These associations organize networking events to help you meet new colleagues, offer professional development and continuing education resources, and connect recent graduates with mentors. Many also host job boards with exclusive listings for their members. In addition, some professional organizations serve populations traditionally underrepresented in public policy, such as women and African-Americans.
American Society for Public Administration
ASPA works to advance the practice and study of public and nonprofit administration. It hosts a national conference, shares research through scholarly journals and policy briefs, and provides resources specifically for students and new professionals. ASPA has also created a code of ethics for those in the field.
Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
Founded in 1979, APPAM aims to improve public policy and management through research and education. Members can watch professional development webinars, review job listings on the group's online career center, and attend an array of research conferences. APPAM also gives awards to recognize exemplary service in public policy.
National Forum for Black Public Administrators
NFBPA represents more than 2,500 African-American public administration professionals. In addition to national conferences and regional events, NFBPA offers scholarships to both undergraduate and graduate students interested in public policy. Scholarship amounts range from $1,500-$10,000.