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A master’s in public policy is a versatile degree that prepares students for advanced careers in government, private-sector corporations, and nonprofits. Students graduate with the skills and expertise to formulate, advance, and advocate for government policies that impact local, regional, and national communities. Graduates go on to work as legislative aides, government relations managers, policy analysts, and political scientists.

The median annual wage for political scientists is $132,350. Salaries vary greatly depending on the location and industry. Those who work in the federal government earn a median yearly salary of $145,600, while those in educational services earn $78,970 annually. This field is expected to grow faster than average, with 600 openings projected yearly from 2022 to 2032.

Most master’s in public policy programs require students to complete between 30 and 45 credits. Students often complete the degree in two to three years of full-time study. Accelerated and part-time programs are also available, where students can complete the program at their desired pace. The average annual cost for a master’s program is $19,749, but will depend on the institution, program, and student housing requirements.

How to Choose a Master’s in Public Policy Program

Choose your area of study

Master’s programs in public policy are often offered as a Master of Public Policy or Master of Arts, which differ in their focus areas and structure.

A Master of Public Policy degree offers a specialized approach that focuses on applied policy problems and includes practical applications. Coursework often centers on analyzing and recommending policies and includes a thesis component.

A Master of Arts in public policy degree focuses on the theory of public policy as viewed in economics, history, law, and political science.

Choose the degree that best aligns with your interests and career goals. Many programs also allow you to select a specialization, such as climate and sustainability, governance, international economics, security, or technology. The specialization chosen will influence your elective courses and tailor your education to the selected field.

Research schools and programs

As you’re researching institutions, look for those with regional or national accreditation. Accreditation is recognized nationwide and ensures that the school meets the quality standards set by recognized organizations. It can also assist in transferring credits, receiving government aid, and applying for jobs. You can search the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) database to find schools and programs with recognized accreditation.

Utilize all of the available resources to learn more about potential schools and programs, including:

  • Visiting the school in person
  • Attending open houses
  • Following schools on social media
  • Browsing school and program websites

By doing so, you’ll better understand the culture, curriculum, and campus lifestyle and determine if they align with your interests and needs. You can also contact an academic advisor to learn more and ask questions.

Prepare for tests and applications

Most master’s in public policy programs require a minimum of five years of professional work experience in program management, policy formation, budgeting and finance, program management, or related areas. In addition, the institution will likely require students to submit the following:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • A resume
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement
  • Proof of English language proficiency

Carefully review the requirements for each prospective program, and speak with an admissions advisor before submitting your application. They’ll review the application process with you and confirm if your work experience meets the requirements.

Select your program

Review the program options to determine the best choice for your academic and career goals. If you are accepted to multiple programs, take the time to review the cost, length, focus areas, and learning options of each institution. Consider whether the program is full-time or part-time, online or in-person, or synchronous or asynchronous. Many programs also require students to complete a residency or internship, so make sure this works with your schedule.

If you need help deciding, review your options with an academic advisor. They’ll discuss each program with you and help you make the best choice for your needs.

Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

Create a yearly budget outlining academic-related expenses such as tuition, fees, and supplies, along with living expenses such as housing, transportation, and extracurriculars. Review the budget to determine if you can pay for the degree yourself or if you require financial assistance.

Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine the amount of financial aid you’re eligible to receive, including scholarships, work-study funds, grants, and loans. If you currently work in the industry, ask your employer if they offer tuition assistance. Many companies will help with employees’ tuition fees if they’re studying areas that will benefit their future careers.

Best 50 Accredited Master’s in Public Policy Degree Programs

Best Master's in Public Policy Degree Programs_2024 badge

University of California, Berkeley

University of Michigan

Princeton University

Georgia Institute of Technology

University of Connecticut

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Harvard Kennedy School

The University of Texas at Dallas

University of Chicago

Duke University

William Paterson University of New Jersey

Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College

University of Southern California

Pepperdine University

The George Washington University

Discover More Options

How we rank schools

We reviewed many master’s in public policy degree programs, including both Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs. Our list contains hybrid, online, and traditional options.

All of the listed programs are regionally accredited, and many also have programmatic accreditation through the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA). Accreditation ensures the quality of a program.We evaluated each program on the basis of flexibility, faculty, course strength, cost, and reputation. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score for each program on a scale from 0 to 100. For a more extensive explanation, check out our ranking methodology.

What Can You Expect From a Master’s in Public Policy Program?

A master’s program in public policy provides students with a thorough understanding of government policies’ formation process and impact. The key areas studied include policy design and implementation, advocacy and lobbying, economic foundations, and policy analysis. Graduates complete the degree with the communication, research, and decision-making skills necessary to excel in advanced positions in the field.

Master’s in public policy programs often consist of required foundational courses and elective courses tailored to individual focus areas. The various online and in-person learning methods include lectures, exams, research projects, presentations, and seminars. Most programs conclude with a required internship or residency that allows students to gain real-world experience in the industry.

Potential courses you’ll take in a master’s in public policy program

  • Public Governance. Students examine how government and public organizations serve their stakeholders, the services they carry out, how they manage their resources, and how they manage regulatory powers.
  • Public Budgeting and Financial Management. This course introduces the revenue and expenditure structure of the public sector. Students learn about revenue policy, expenditure policy, administration, and budget structure.
  • Economics for Public Administrators. Students examine the role of government in the economy as related to market failure and social equity. They’ll explore topics including income distribution, public goods, the allocation of goods and services, and the impact of macroeconomic events.
  • Leading Public Organizations. This course discusses the qualities and practices of an effective public leader, including the impact of organizational behavior.
  • Acquiring, Developing, and Leveraging Human Capital: Students will study the effective management of human capital within a successful organization. Topics include talent management, employee development, succession planning, and performance metrics.

Master’s in Public Policy Degree Frequently Asked Questions

How do I apply to a master's in public policy degree program?

Visit the prospective program’s website to review the application requirements for the degree. Most programs require students to have five or more years of work experience in a related field before applying. You will also likely have to submit a resume, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Speak with an admissions advisor before submitting your application to ensure you have all the required materials.

How much does a master's in public policy degree cost?

The average annual cost of a master’s degree in public policy is $19,749, but it will vary depending on the school and program. Students should consider additional expenses that may increase this cost, including supplies, housing, transportation, and living expenses. Those who complete part-time or online programs may see this amount decrease.

How long does it take to earn a master's in public policy degree?

Most master’s degree programs in public policy require two to three years of full-time study. Part-time and asynchronous programs are available for those who do not have full-time availability, allowing students to complete the courses at their desired rate. However, many programs require the completion of an internship or residency, during which students will need to be available full-time.

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