Students who earn a master's degree in public policy explore how laws and governmental policies affect industries, businesses, and individuals. Graduates can work for the government or as consultants for companies attempting to navigate public policy issues.

On this page, readers can find information about how to earn an on-campus or online degree in public policy, including how to choose a master's program and how long it takes to graduate. Readers can also find examples of courses and concentrations that are commonly found in master's programs in public policy, as well as potential career options for graduates.

Learn More About Public Policy Careers

What Is Public Policy?

Public policy influences which laws get written and how they affect the population. Policy students analyze data to identify societal problems and how the public feels about them. Professionals in public policy can influence law at the local, state, and federal levels as advisors to lawmakers and lobbyists.

What Are the Best Online Master's in Public Policy Programs of 2020?

Rank School Location
1 Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD
2 Northwestern University Evanston, IL
3 University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA
4 American University Washington, DC
5 Indiana University Bloomington Bloomington, IN
6 University of Northern Iowa Cedar Falls, IA
7 University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA
8 University of Missouri Columbia, MO
9 Liberty University Lynchburg, VA
10 Oregon State University Corvallis, OR

Should I Get a Master's in Public Policy?

Many public policy roles — including political scientist, survey researcher, and urban and regional planner — require a master's degree. A master's program also teaches students the high-level skills needed for management positions in a variety of roles.

Additionally, professionals can leverage a master's degree to pursue career advancement and higher salaries. On average, professionals with a master's degree earn more than their counterparts who only hold a bachelor's.

Public policy students learn about the American political system and how it affects different industries. They also develop analytical, critical thinking, research, and communication skills. Students learn to predict political or economic trends by analyzing collected data.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for political scientists is $122,220. The BLS projects 5% job growth for this field between 2018 and 2028. Additionally, the BLS projects that the number of urban and regional planners will increase by 11% over the same period — more than twice as fast as the average projected growth rate for all occupations in the U.S.

What Will I Learn in a Public Policy Graduate Program?

Master's programs in public policy explore emerging theories in policy and management. Students also learn to research, collate, and analyze data to make decisions related to policy.

The sections below provide a few examples of courses and concentrations commonly available in public policy programs. However, keep in mind that not all programs offer the same options.

Courses

Law and Public Policy

This class studies the impact of legislation and the courts on public policy and vice versa. Students learn valuable legal research and analysis skills, as well as how to shape policy based on current legislation.

The Economics of Public Policy

Students learn how public policy influences the distribution of resources and income. This class explores microeconomics in relation to policy and legislation. Learners gain insight into what happens when the government intervenes in the economy.

Decision Analysis, Modeling, and Quantitative Methods

This course teaches rational decision-making based on quantitative data. Students learn to collect, organize, and analyze data, as well as how to use it to make policy decisions. Graduates can apply this skill to almost any industry.

Public Management and Policy Implementation

Students learn about emerging techniques that can be used for managing nonprofits and service programs. This course mostly explores the impact of public policy on nongovernmental agencies, using real-world examples and case studies to build practical understanding.

Policy Practice

This class shows students how to impact public policy to achieve social or economic justice, particularly for marginalized groups. Students cover social work and community organizing skills, such as how to canvass and collect signatures.

Concentrations

Local Government Management

This concentration explores policy issues related to cities and other population centers. Students strengthen their creative problem-solving skills and learn how to poll public opinion and drive institutional change at the local level.

Nonprofit Management

Students learn how to manage nonprofits, focusing on skills related to fundraising, development, and advocacy. This concentration shows how nonprofits can influence public policy and how policy, in turn, shapes practices at nonprofits.

Healthcare Policy

Students interested in shaping the healthcare industry should choose this concentration. Online learners explore the ins and outs of healthcare policy and how it intersects with national public policy, economics, and law.

Economic Policy

This concentration examines economic problems and policy issues and shows the relationship between the two. Many classes use practical examples to demonstrate how economic issues drive policy decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.

Environmental Policy

Learners pursuing this concentration examine the tensions between industrial growth and environmental protection regulations. Coursework encourages creative problem-solving and policy solutions from students.

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

Students who earn an on-campus or online master's degree in public policy prepare for careers in the government, healthcare, finance, education, and energy sectors. Graduates can pursue research positions or help shape policy, either as a governmental aide or as a lobbyist.

The list below describes several public policy career options.

Careers

Political Scientist

Political scientists need a deep understanding of the American political system and how to influence it. They use data from political surveys to read the mood of the people and determine the best way to craft policy.

Survey Researcher

These professionals design surveys, collect answers, and analyze the data. These surveys can cover any topic, allowing survey researchers to work in almost any industry. For example, professionals in public policy can craft surveys about political opinions.

Urban and Regional Planner

Urban and regional planners learn about public policy that affects land use and apply it to their plans to develop property. These professionals closely interact with public officials and developers to advocate for policy changes and ensure policy compliance.

Public Relations Specialist

Public relations specialists maintain their organization's image in the eye of the public. These specialists need an understanding of public opinion and public policy to ensure their company stays ahead of any potential image issues.

Historian

These professionals study past trends in politics and public opinion. Historians conduct research and write papers and books about their findings. Historians can also offer critical insight into future trends by studying the past.

How to Choose a Public Policy Master's Program

Prospective students need to do their research before applying to a public policy program. First, students should look for a school's accreditation status, which most universities list on their websites. Accreditation proves that the school meets certain educational standards set by recognized accreditation agencies.

Students should also look for specific programmatic features, such as accelerated course options, internship requirements, and available concentrations. Readers can find out more about choosing a master's program here.

How to Get Into a Public Policy Master's Program

Most master's programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's in public policy or a related field. Some programs may set a minimum GPA threshold, usually around 2.5 or higher. Applicants are often asked to submit letters of recommendation and official transcripts from previously attended postsecondary institutions.

Many public policy programs also require GRE scores. Students should look into score requirements on a college's website to make sure they meet or exceed expectations.

Read Our Guide to Graduate Admissions

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Public Policy?

Full-time students pursuing an on-campus or online master's degree in public policy often graduate in about 18-24 months. Part-time students take more time, depending on how many credits they take each term.

Full-time students may be able to complete their degree within a year if they join an accelerated program. These programs often allow students to overload their credits or take classes during the summer.

Most public policy careers do not require additional certification or licensure.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Master's in Public Policy?

Tuition costs for public policy programs differ depending on the state, type of college, and the residency status of the student. Applicants should always check if they qualify for in-state tuition rates and financial aid.

Some online programs cost less than in-person programs, as distance learners can save on expenses like room and board and transportation costs. Readers should always research tuition prices before they apply.

Read More About Public Policy on BestColleges

Best Online Master's in Public Policy Programs