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Online Master's Programs in Public Policy

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Updated on: 11/22/2018

Students who envision working at the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Foreign Service, or their state capital can begin their careers with an online master's in public policy. Economic, social, and political agencies need experienced, educated team members with skills in data collection, analysis, and communication. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in any subject can earn their public policy master's degrees entirely through distance education, allowing them to take care of family and work obligations as they study.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master's in Public Policy Program?

Pursuing an online master's in public policy is an effective start to a career in international relations, federal civil service, or nonprofit organizations. In this degree, students learn about policy writing, development, and analysis. Most public policy graduate degrees require between 32 and 42 credits, which full-time students can typically complete in 1-2 years. Since a public policy master's degree typically includes an internship and final research project, students should expect to spend two semesters of study focused on those components. Web-based programs operate much like their on-campus counterparts, as distance learners can usually complete internship requirements at local government agencies or nearby nonprofit organizations.

What common courses are offered in a master's in public policy program?

A master's in public policy is an interdisciplinary degree that draws coursework from political science, economics, law, communication, and data analysis. As such, the exact curricular structure varies across schools, often depending on the mission and faculty interests of each institution. A sample curriculum is below.

Economics and Public Policy

Students in this course consider the effects of public policy on economics and of economics on public policy. They examine the concept of markets, market failure, and economic theories. Topics include trade, debt, enterprise, and public budgeting and taxation. Ultimately, students learn the sources of economic growth and decline in a nation-state.

Policy and Politics in American Political Institutions >

In this course, students learn how policy is shaped in the framework of American democratic institutions. Students gain skills in political and economic analysis and learn to apply those skills to address issues in immigration, trade, labor, and the environment.

Political Philosophy

Beginning in ancient Greece and proceeding through the philosophers of Western civilizations, this course considers the evolution of political philosophy, especially as it applies to contemporary practices in American politics.

Ethics and Social Justice

Believing ethics are foundational to leadership, schools offer this course to help students meet the complex legal, social, and moral challenges of public life and policymaking. Students consider concepts like economic disparity, privilege, and power as study demographic data and social trends.

Leadership & Organizational Change

Public organizations need quality leaders. Leadership & organizational change is a course designed to help students explore the theoretical underpinnings of leadership and the role of the leader in an organization. Course participants also consider ethical boundaries, when and how to expand those boundaries, and ways to influence social change through ethical leadership.

What exams or projects should I expect?

Often students in an online master's in public policy can pursue several options: Students committed to research, especially those who intend to pursue a Ph.D., typically write a traditional master's thesis. A thesis requires a proposal, research, writing, and defense before a committee of faculty members. Students who plan to work as analysts, lobbyists, or nonprofit directors may choose a capstone project instead. A capstone demonstrates quantitative and analytical skills and is more concrete than a traditional thesis. Topics for a public policy student might include adoption tax credits, policy toward China, or healthcare for undocumented workers.

What specializations are available in a master's in public policy program?

Some online master's in public policy are general degrees covering the fundamentals of American government, policy development, and policy analysis. Other programs offer a variety of specializations, usually within the broad subfields of national policy, foreign policy, and state and local policy. Sample specializations are listed below.

Health Policy

In this concentration, students aiming for careers in healthcare policy analysis and administration can take courses such as health economics, public health leadership, and systems thinking. Ultimately focused on improving community life and well-being, health policy students learn about the regulatory, ethical, and legal issues in this growing field.

International Affairs

International affairs is a broad concentration including studies in American foreign policy, strategic intelligence, and global organizational development. Students consider globalization, conflict, and collaboration. Courses may include Middle East law and policy, U.S. sovereignty and international law, and terrorism and global peace.

Campaigns and Elections

Future campaign strategists, speechwriters, and political communicators study the theory and practices of campaigns and elections in this concentration. Students learn to lead teams, support candidates, and promote important issues. Courses may include speechwriting and campaign tactics, strategies, and management.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Public Policy Degree?

Public policy specialists often find work in the federal government, state governments, nonprofits, and lobbyist offices. Graduates may work as researchers, economists, policy analysts, or directors of organizations. Some public policy degrees equip students to take exams for roles in the U.S. Foreign Service. Other specializations give students a chance to manage campaigns or to run for office. Some online master's in public policy prepare students for doctorates in public policy, political science, or economics. Students who earn these degrees conduct innovative research at think tanks or teach at universities.

Political Scientist

Political scientists research, study, and analyze governments, political trends, and public policies. These professionals must hold at least a master's degree in public policy or a related field, though most political scientists hold a Ph.D. They work in universities, think tanks, and government agencies, collecting and analyzing data, testing theories, monitoring political events, and forecasting future trends. Political scientists present their findings in published papers, at conferences, and through public presentations.

Survey Researchers

Charged with designing surveys and analyzing data, survey researchers need a strong background in data collection, market analysis, statistics, and social science. These professionals not only design surveys, but they also test them, account for any problems, oversee their distribution, and analyze the results. They conclude the process by summarizing and presenting the data. Most survey researchers hold a master's degree with coursework in quantitative research, polling, and statistics. Some also earn a certificate in survey research.

Postsecondary Teachers

Working in higher education institutions, postsecondary teachers instruct students in public policy. These professionals may also advise student organizations like the Model United Nations or the political science club. Some college professors also conduct extensive research regarding public policy issues, publishing and presenting their findings in journals and at academic conferences.

Social and Community Service Managers

Social and community service managers may lead public or private agencies with a mission to improve the lives of people in a community through service, action, and collaboration. An online master's in public policy makes an excellent background for this profession, since the degree provides courses in organizational leadership, social problems, economics, and analysis. Social and community service managers can plan outreach activities, write funding proposals, and oversee large social change projects.

Joining a professional organization is an easy way for public policy graduates to integrate themselves into the field. These associations host national conferences that serve as networking hubs within the industry. Professional organizations also offer continuing education opportunities, publish journals filled with the latest research, and help connect members with careers through job boards and career centers.

International City/County Management Association

ICMA is a professional association for people serving in local government. The organization offers career resources, including a job center, coaching, and an online educational portal. ICMA also publishes research and "PM Magazine."

American Society of Public Administration

ASPA is dedicated to advancing public service organizations through the four values of social equity, ethics, professionalism, and accountability and performance. The society offers special discounted membership to students and young professionals who can take advantage of the jobs board.

Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management

APPAM members seek to improve public management and policy through teaching, research, and analysis. The association publishes a journal, hosts an annual conference, and honors excellence in the field with awards.

American Evaluation Association

The AEA boasts more than 7,300 members from all 50 states and 80 other countries, and its mission is to improve evaluation methods and practices. Members of the AEA can take part in conferences, asynchronous learning, and networking opportunities. The AEA publishes "The American Journal of Evaluation" and "New Directions for Evaluation."

Emerging Local Government Leaders

ELGL engages local government leaders and thinkers through on-campus events, conferences, supper clubs, and other activities. The organization also honors excellence in local government through three awards.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Public Policy?

Earning an online master's in public policy can open doors for positions in research, analysis, and leadership. The degree does not guarantee eligibility for any position, but due to its broad interdisciplinary nature, a public policy program can prepare students to succeed in many careers. Many public policy graduates live and work in state capitals, the District of Columbia, or even abroad. Others pursue higher education, teach at a college, or tackle a social problem in their communities.

Job Title Lowest 10% Earned Annually Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Earned Annually Job Growth 2016-2026
Political Scientist Less than $56,150 $115,110 More than $161,890 +3%
Survey Researchers Less than $27,000 $54,270 More than $100,660 +2%
Postsecondary Teachers Less than $39,040 $76,000 More than $170,160 +15%
Social and Community Service Managers Less than $39,730 $64,100 More than $109,990 +18%

Source: BLS 2018

Public policy degrees can lead to job opportunities in many growing fields. Social scientist positions, for instance, are growing at a rate of 11%, and postsecondary political science teachers are seeing similar job growth. Students looking for work in nonprofit management can expect a high-growth market due to increased investment in addiction recovery programs, alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders, and a growing population of senior citizens with programming needs.

Online Master's in Public Policy Program Accreditation

Accreditation is one of the most important factors a student must consider when choosing a degree in any subject. In the U.S., accreditation is a voluntary process by which colleges and universities prove that they meet certain standards of excellence and are committed to organizational growth. Field-specific accrediting agencies give their stamp of approval to a specific department within a university. The field-specific Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), for example, accredits public service programs. NASPAA accreditation ensures that the program you've chosen will prepare you adequately for the workforce.

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

Students earning an online master's in public policy can take advantage of federal financial aid, scholarships from professional organizations, and program scholarships. As much as possible, students should limit loans and maximize grants, scholarships, and work opportunities.

  • Federal Financial Aid

    Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to acquiring federal resources. While Pell Grants are not available to graduate students, subsidized loans and military benefits are both an option. Many private scholarships also require students to complete the FAFSA.

  • Coverdell Fellows

    Former Peace Corps volunteers who left the program in good standing and are now attending a school that partners with Coverdell Fellows can take advantage of a yearly stipend and a generous tuition remission. For more information about the Coverdell Fellows program, contact the school office or the Peace Corps.

  • School-based Scholarships

    Many graduate schools of public policy offer endowed scholarships specifically for qualifying students at their institutions. Qualifiers may include ethnicity, religious affiliation, or membership in an organization. Pepperdine's School of Public Policy, for instance, offers the Endowed Jewish Scholarship.

  • Discounted Tuition

    Some online programs offer in-state tuition to students regardless of residency status. Faith-based schools may offer price reductions to members of a supporting denomination. Some schools provide discounts to qualifying professionals. Liberty University, for example, offers an emergency response personnel discount.