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Public policies are guidelines, laws, or regulations that solve public problems. An online master’s degree in public policy prepares future leaders to design, implement, and evaluate local, state, or federal public policies. Budget analysts average over $79,000 in annual salary, sociologists can earn over $90,000, and lobbyists and political scientists average over $100,000.

Advanced degrees are beneficial for salary increases, and getting the best online master’s in public policy has a great return on investment. Spending between $12,000 and $26,000 at a public or private university can lead to a career making double and sometimes triple the investment.

How to Choose an Online Master’s in Public Policy Program

Choose your area of study

Careers associated with an online master’s in public policy are broad. Choosing your study area may include determining if you want to work for the government, nonprofit organizations, corporations, or as an entrepreneur. Examples of government jobs include the following:

  • City management
  • Budget analysts
  • Public relations
  • Program developers
  • Legislatures

Examples of nonprofit and private organization careers include:

  • Advocates
  • Policy researcher
  • Founder or leader of the company
  • Communications
  • Community affairs
  • Fundraising or marketing manager

As public policy entrepreneurs, graduates can work as government, public, and private organizations consultants. Other options include being a lawyer, running for political office, or conducting research as a sociologist.

Research schools and programs

Start researching for the best online master’s degree in public policy by reviewing the accreditation status of each program. If a school is not accredited, eliminate it from the list of options. Accreditation is verification that a school meets the high standards set forth by the industry.

Agencies like the following are reputable:

  • Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA)
  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
  • Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP)

Another way to research a school is to read online reviews of current and former students and staff. Interview someone from the public policy department and ask them for references from former students.

Prepare for tests and applications

The application process for a master’s degree in public policy occurs in stages with deadlines for many schools. There are deadlines for submitting program-specific information and for financial aid. Missing the deadlines can mean a delay in starting the program.

Along with the application, the following information is typically required for consideration:

  • Graduate entrance exam test results
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts from an undergraduate program
  • Proof of graduation and overall GPA
  • Personal statement
  • Resume
  • Application fees

International students are required to pass an English proficiency test. All students must pass the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When ready, the application can be completed online.

Select your program

There are many great master-level public policy programs. Choosing one over the other may come down to the extras available. For example, one school may offer more assistance for those with learning disabilities. Or, one school may have open deadlines, offering more flexibility. Other benefits to help you make a final decision include:

  • Tuition assistance
  • Tutoring and student assistance
  • Accessibility to professors and staff
  • School ranking
  • Curriculum
  • Diversity
  • Completion rate and placement

Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

The costs to get the best online master’s in public policy can be an obstacle if you do not have a clear plan as to how you will pay for your degree. In creating a plan, it’s essential to consider all costs, like technology, textbook, assessment, placement, graduation, library, and tutoring fees.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will reveal financial aid options available, including grants and loans. Reports claim that 70% of scholarship funding goes unclaimed every year. You can search for and apply for scholarships that match your educational goals.

The Top 20 Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

Best Master's in Public Policy Programs 2023

Oregon State University

Johns Hopkins University

Liberty University

American University

Regent University

University of Pittsburgh

Indiana University-Bloomington

Northwestern School of Professional Studies

University of Southern California

University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth

Penn State World Campus

DePaul University

University of Missouri

University of Northern Iowa

University of Nebraska-Omaha

Valdosta State University

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

SUNY Empire State College

Discover More Options

How We Rank Schools

This list features some of the best online Master’s in Public Policy programs at top colleges across the country. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution — either public or private — with a high standard of academic quality for post-secondary institutions. Many of the schools on our list have been accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, which assesses the objectives, quality, and overall effectiveness of public policy-related programs.

We evaluated each school’s program on tuition costs, admission, retention and graduation rates, faculty, and reputation as well as the student resources provided for online students. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of online Master’s in Public Policy programs to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications, including U.S. News & World Report, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

What Can You Expect from an Online Master’s in Public Policy Program?

Most master-level programs are offered so students can complete the program within two years. Typically, a minimum of 36 credit hours are required. With an online program, students can expect to have more flexibility in when and where they complete coursework. Check if the online program offers accelerated, dual degree, or extended plans if the typical schedule is not a good fit.

You may be asked to pick a specialty area in the online master’s degree of public policy program. Specialty areas include the following:

  • Health policy
  • Environmental policy
  • Food and science policy
  • Public relations
  • Policy Analytics
  • Communication
  • Economist

To graduate, students must pass core courses, specialty courses, and policy-related internships. In addition, many require a thesis, final exam, seminar, or final project under the supervision of a committee of faculty in public policy.

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

  • Introduction to Public Policy. Students may be required to take a foundational course that explains public policy, its importance, and how to evaluate policies concerning solving public problems. It will cover local, state, federal, nonprofit, and private organizational policy issues. Students gain an understanding of public policy analysis and decision-making.
  • Nonprofit Leadership. Students learn what it takes to lead an organization, such as skills related to board governance, laws, ethics, budgeting, and staff development. The focus is on organization development, communication with the community, regulation compliance, and financial analysis.
  • Law and Public Policy. Students discover the impact laws and statutes have on public policy. Those seeking careers in leadership roles will benefit from learning how to legally address public challenges and make changes within the limits of the law.
  • Microeconomics. Students will learn how to study the economy related to businesses and individuals. Topics include supply, demand, production costs, and analysis of government policies. They will examine how products are made, priced, sold, and used. Students examine why people spend their money the way they do.

What Can You Do With an Online Master’s in Public Policy?

Career outlook

The career outlook for individuals with an online master’s degree in public policy is bright, reflecting the increasing demand for experts who can navigate complex policy issues. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in social and community service occupations, a common path for public policy graduates, is projected to grow nine percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. The median annual salary for social and community service managers is $74,240 a year.

Career paths

Earning a master’s degree in public policy empowers individuals to drive impactful change by navigating the intricacies of policymaking, analysis, and advocacy. This advanced degree equips graduates with the skills needed to address complex societal challenges and contribute to the development of effective public policies. Here are some potential career paths, showcasing the versatility of a master’s in public policy and the diverse roles graduates can undertake:

  • Research associate — contributes to research projects in institutions, think tanks, or universities.
  • Nonprofit program manager — oversees the implementation of programs at nonprofit institutions.
  • Health policy advisor — provides expertise in developing and analyzing health policies.
  • Education policy advisor — shapes and analyzes policies to enhance educational systems.
  • Labor relations specialist — manages the relationship between employers and their employees.
  • Urban planning consultant — develops plans to create sustainable communities by considering factors such as land use, infrastructure, and environmental impact.

Policy Analyst

Earning Potential: $57,854-$73,858 annually
Education Required: Master’s degree in public policy or a related field

A policy analyst examines societal issues, researching and assessing potential policy solutions. They evaluate the impact of existing policies and generate evidence-based recommendations. Collaborating with stakeholders, policymakers, and advocacy groups, policy analysts play a pivotal role in shaping effective public policies. By identifying challenges and proposing innovative solutions, these professionals contribute to informed decision-making, addressing complex problems and fostering positive change.

Legislative Assistant

Earning Potential: $37,409-$48,758 annually
Education Required: Master’s degree in political science, public policy, or a related field

A legislative assistant supports lawmakers in the policymaking process. They conduct comprehensive research on proposed legislation, analyze its potential impact, and draft reports or briefings to inform decision-makers. Legislative assistants also liaise with constituents, advocacy groups, and government agencies, facilitating communication between legislators and stakeholders. With a focus on staying abreast of current issues and policy developments, these professionals contribute to the informed decision-making of lawmakers, ensuring that policies align with societal needs and concerns.

Government Affairs Specialist

Earning Potential: $74,775-$96,877 annually
Education Required: Master’s degree in political science, public policy, or a related field

Government affairs specialists advocate for organizations in legislative and regulatory processes. They analyze proposed policies, assess their impact, and strategize to influence favorable outcomes. Government affairs specialists navigate complex political landscapes by building relationships with government officials and stakeholders. These professionals represent their organizations’ interests, monitor policy developments, and engage in lobbying efforts. Through effective communication and negotiation, they shape policies that align with organizational goals, ensuring a favorable regulatory environment and contributing to the success and compliance of their entities within the broader legislative framework.

Online Master’s in Public Policy Degree Frequently Asked Questions

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

Because each master’s degree program in public policy has different requirements for admission, it’s essential to talk to an admissions counselor before beginning the process. Some schools offer online meetings for convenience. During the meeting, students can verify the application process and the documents they must submit, which will likely include transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a resume.

The application process is online, making it easy to complete and upload documents for submission.

How much does an online master's in public policy degree program cost?

Schools start you with a base fee for an online master’s degree program in public policy. However, the base fee will increase due to extra costs associated with the program. An online student can expect to pay extra for the following:

  • Application
  • Technology
  • Textbook
  • Student services

The cost of online programs is based on location, public versus private institutions, and type of program. Paying out-of-state tuition costs much more than in-state. Reports show the cost of a credit hour ranges between $277 to more than $1,000. Most classes are worth three credit hours, meaning one class can cost between $831 and more than $3,000.

Fortunately, there are many financial aid opportunities to help students pay for the best online master’s in public policy.

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

Like tuition, the time it takes to earn an online master’s degree in public policy will vary for each student due to individualized factors. Master’s programs are typically designed for completion within two years, but because many online students have multiple responsibilities, their programs are flexible.

Factors that influence the length of the program include:

  • Part-time versus full-time status
  • Number of credit hours required
  • Unexpected life interruptions and obstacles that put studying on hold
  • How the school schedules courses, offered on an open basis or only in specific semesters

Some students have few distractions and can complete an accelerated program, usually finishing within a year.

Is an online master’s in public policy worth it?

Earning an online master’s in public policy is highly valuable for individuals aspiring to shape and influence public policies. The program equips students with the analytical skills, policy knowledge, and ethical frameworks necessary for impactful careers in government, nonprofits, and research.

The earning potential for individuals with an online master’s in public policy is competitive. Salaries can range from $50,000 to $100,000 or more annually, depending on experience, specialization, and the specific career path chosen. Public policy graduates are well-positioned for roles that require expertise in policy analysis and advocacy.

One of the key advantages of earning an online master’s in public policy is the flexibility it offers. Online programs allow students to balance their education with work or other commitments, providing access to quality education without geographical constraints. This flexibility enhances opportunities for career growth and advancement.

An online master’s in public policy teaches policy analysis and research and cultivates critical skills applicable in various professional settings. Graduates are prepared to lead with integrity, drive evidence-based policymaking, and contribute meaningfully to addressing complex challenges.