Online Master's Programs in Public Policy

Updated on: 12/13/2018

In the U.S., citizens remain increasingly interested in civil engagement and politics. In the 2018 midterm elections, voter enthusiasm reached its highest point in two decades, Pew Research reported. Professionals who want to advance in their careers and impact the public sphere should take advantage of this enthusiasm by earning an online master's degree in public policy (MPP).

Earning an MPP can also increase your salary potential. On average, political scientists, top government executives, and public relations managers earn an annual income of more than $100,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Keep reading to learn more about how online MPP programs can help you advance in your career.

What to Know About Online Master's in Public Policy Coursework

At their core, online public policy master's programs teach students about governing and implementing policies for the public good. An online master's degree in public policy covers several concepts integral to the field, such as ethics and political science. Students can emphasize one particular sector, such as environmental policy, social policy, or economics and financial regulation. Learners may aim to go into government, but they may also pursue careers at think tanks or nonprofits meant to advocate for certain public issues.

Earning an MPP online usually takes two years. Students enrolled part time might take 3-5 years to complete their program. Sometimes schools offer an accelerated option, allowing students to graduate in one year. MPP programs may require anywhere from 36-48 credits, depending on how the school structures its curriculum. Sometimes schools allow incoming students to transfer in credits, allowing these learners to graduate sooner.

What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Public Policy Program?

Online public policy master's programs do not follow one common formula. Curriculum changes depending on the concentration, program, and school. See below for a brief list of example courses that you might experience in your online public policy master's degree. Check out your prospective schools' websites to find out which courses they offer.

Introduction to Public Policy

Public policy programs sometimes require incoming students to take an introductory course that lays the foundation for the rest of the curriculum. An introduction to public policy class covers fundamental concepts such as policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels. Students may also learn about issues such as taxation, poverty, and education policy.

Healthcare Policy

Healthcare policy has inspired debate in the U.S. political system for decades. This course typically looks at modern healthcare law in addition to theories behind other healthcare policies. Students may also examine the ethics of government regulation in this field, human reproductive rights, and healthcare fraud and abuse.

Nonprofit Governance

Students who want to work in leadership roles at nonprofits can learn the management skills they need in this course. Students explore nonprofits' unique financial needs and fundraising strategies. Learners also study how nonprofit boards work and how board members and managers interact.

Environmental Infrastructure

With reports about the growing risk of climate change, scientists recommend that policymakers evaluate regulations and infrastructure concerning natural resources and sustainability. This course helps students understand how to organize cities and towns to reduce carbon emissions. This course also covers concepts such as public-private partnerships, design-build procurement, and financial incentives for sustainable companies.

International Development

This course prepares students to work for either government or non-governmental organizations across borders. Professors cover the unique policy challenges that international development workers face, especially when one project must meet regulations from multiple countries. Students also learn about the funding and economic viability of international development projects.

What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Public Policy Program?

Online MPP degrees typically allow students to choose a focus area meant to prepare them for a specific sector in public policy. A nonprofit management concentration, for instance, teaches students to approach leadership in the nonprofit sector. Of course, these options change depending on your chosen school. Browse some common concentrations below.

Development

A concentration in development or international development trains students how to approach economic development policy abroad. Learners examine the financial, political, and social circumstances of countries all over the world. They also learn how to implement projects and policies that encourage development in foreign countries without disrupting the fabric or economics of those countries.

Human Rights

Students enrolled in this concentration dig deep into both theories of human rights and practical solutions for human rights abuses. This specialization explores the ethical question: What rights do humans inherently hold? Students examine issues such as inequality, unfair treatment of workers, wage theories, societal hierarchies, and welfare assistance.

Social Policy

The social policy emphasis areas prepare students to help vulnerable people through governance, laws, and regulations. Courses cover topics such as immigration status, housing discrimination, urban economic development, the war on drugs, and racial disparities. Students learn how certain laws can hurt, instead of help, marginalized people.

What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?

Toward the end of your online public policy master's curriculum, you can expect to take a capstone or write a thesis. The content of the capstone course varies at every school, but programs often expect students to complete a project before they graduate. The project may involve working in pairs, teams, or individually. Usually the project must cover the cumulative information students learned throughout the master's program. A thesis, on the other hand, requires students to complete lengthy individual research endeavors. The thesis allows students to dig deep into one topic that fascinates them. It also sets up a foundation for doctoral research if students choose to return to school in the future.

How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Public Policy Program?

When you apply to a master's program, make sure it possesses accreditation. Accrediting bodies review academic programs to make sure students receive a quality education. When researching online public policy master's programs, look for accreditation from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA). NASPAA only accredits programs at schools that already hold accreditation from a regional or national agency. NASPAA evaluates graduate programs' mission statements, performance expectations, and program evaluation.

However, students should not rely on accreditation alone to determine whether a program seems trustworthy. Do your own research as well. Consider how many students graduate. How many faculty members possess a doctorate? What does the curriculum actually cover? Ask current or former students about their experiences. If you discover that student morale dips below your expectations or you find a low graduation rate, these factors could qualify as red flags.

Career Opportunities With a Master's in Public Policy Degree

After earning your master's in public policy online, you need to find a job. Luckily, an MPP prepares you for a variety of professional roles in government or nonprofits or for political lobbying or advocacy. See below for a selection of potential careers within the public policy field. Remember, an online MPP degree does not guarantee a job. Sometimes employers look for a graduate with a specific emphasis area. Other employers might expect job candidates to hold licensure or certification in addition to a master's degree. Regardless, the list below provides an idea of the positions you can find as an MPP graduate.

Political Scientist

Political scientists take on a variety of roles. They may develop and research political theories for the federal government, or they might work as policy analysts for lobbying groups or political campaigns. Political scientists may need to conduct surveys or polls, forecast economic trends, or track current events, depending on their roles. Political scientists typically need at least a master's degree in public policy or public administration, although some positions require a doctoral degree.

Median Salary: $115,110 per year

Currently Employed: 7,300

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 3%

Public Relations and Fundraising Manager

Professionals who work as public relations managers maintain a positive public image for their clients or companies. This means that PR managers must develop relationships with the press and communicate with the public. For politicians, lobbying groups, or advocacy groups, building a good reputation remains critical. Political and nonprofit groups also hire fundraising managers to secure money for operations. These professionals supervise fundraising events and organize capital campaigns to help clients reach their financial goals.

Median Salary: $111,280 per year

Currently Employed: 73,500

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 10%

Top Executive

Within the realm of public policy, top executives may work as mayors, governors, city managers, county administrators, or other top government positions. They may work at the local, state, or national levels. Mayors and governors run for office, so they must dedicate substantial time to creating a political campaign. However, counties and cities usually hire their managers and administrators. Professionals in these top positions oversee a strategic plan for their communities. They must also make tough decisions about budgets and resources.

Median Salary: $104,700 per year

Currently Employed: 2,572,000

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 8%

Economist

Economists often work in governmental positions, or for political organizations or lobbying groups. They conduct research on current economic circumstances. They also forecast possible economic outlooks. Often these professionals focus their research on one specific area, such as healthcare, employment levels, or energy production. Economists must typically hold a master's degree. MPP students can find concentrations allowing them to emphasize in economics, or they can pursue a dual degree in public policy and economics.

Median Salary: $102,490 per year

Currently Employed: 21,300

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 6%

Social and Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers may work at nonprofits, civic groups, religious groups, local government offices, or social service organizations. These professionals either run the entire organization, or one branch of the organization. Typically these social and community groups focus on one area, such as creating mentorships for troubled children or finding housing for homeless veterans. Although social and community service managers can find jobs with bachelor's degrees, employers sometimes require job candidates hold a master's degree.

Median Salary: $64,100 per year

Currently Employed: 147,300

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 18%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

What's the Expected Job Growth for Public Policy Careers?

The career outlook for professionals with an online master's in public policy remains positive, according to BLS data. By 2026, the number of political scientists will likely see 3% growth. The number of public relations and fundraising managers is projected to grow 10%. Nonprofit professionals who work as social and community managers could see their industry grow 18%.

Professional Organizations for Careers in Public Policy

Professional organizations serve as great resources for students and recent graduates. They allow students to travel to conferences and meet established professionals in the field. MPP students may ask for advice, gain connections for future jobs, and learn about public policy in general. Professional associations also host job boards and offer career services.

  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management

    This group fosters networking and collaboration between policymakers, scholars, and other professionals working in public policy. The association hosts multiple conferences and events throughout the year. It also publishes the scholarly Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

  • American Society for Public Administration

    ASPA runs several programs for students and recent graduates. These young and upcoming professionals can access the society's job board, participate in a student and new professional summit, and learn from a webinar series.

  • American Political Science Association

    Established in 1903, APSA sponsors multiple initiatives for political science professionals. The group's Congressional Fellowship Program brings professionals to work for nine months in Washington, D.C. Students can also apply for association-sponsored grants and fellowships.

  • National Forum for Black Public Administrators

    Specifically for African Americans in the public administration field, this association aims to amplify the voices of black professionals. Students can join a local chapter, attend the national forum, or apply for the annual scholarship program.

  • National Council of Nonprofits

    MPP students who go on to work at nonprofits can join this council, which claims the status as the country's largest association for nonprofits. It allows nonprofit professionals to collaborate and promote policy issues and advocacy efforts.

How to Pay for a Master's in Public Policy Degree

The costs of graduate school can add up to an intimidating sum. But with the help of several scholarships, grants, and other financial funding, you can make your MPP degree affordable. Remember, schools frequently offer scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships. Make sure to check with your university's financial aid office to see how you qualify for funding.

Federal Financial Aid

All graduate students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This document determines how much financial aid you qualify for from the federal government. This aid often comes in the form of low or no-interest student loans. Individual colleges and states use the FAFSA to calculate student aid.

American Society for Public Administration Scholarships and Student Awards

ASPA sponsors several awards, including a few specifically for students in the public service field. The Walter W. Mode Scholarship offers $1,500 to one winner each year. Candidates must hold ASPA membership. Students can also receive financial awards for presenting an outstanding research paper at ASPA's annual conference.

Ruritan Student Scholarship Program

Ruritan operates as a group for citizens who engage in community service, encourage civic engagement, and participate in public service. Each year, Ruritan gives around $250,000 in scholarships and grants to students enrolled in a higher education program. The amount awarded varies with each candidate based on their applications and financial need.

National Forum for Black Public Administrators Scholarship Program

The NFBPA distributes multiple scholarships to black students in the field of public policy or public administration each year. Funding ranges from $1,000-$10,000. Although the association places special preference on students attending historically black colleges and universities, NFBPA accepts applications from students enrolled in any higher education institution.