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

Online programs meet the rigorous demands of traditional, on-campus coursework but offer distinct benefits. One of the biggest benefits of obtaining your master’s in public policy online is the ability to schedule your coursework around your professional and family obligations. Just keep in mind that program details vary between schools — you should compare program descriptions and curriculum to ensure you find the right option for your career goals.

Available concentrations

A wide variety of career paths are available for those with a master’s in public policy, and many programs will allow you to focus your studies on a particular niche in this field. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the most popular concentration options for public policy majors.

  • Nonprofit Sector: A master’s in public policy with this concentration focuses on the role of nonprofits in society. The coursework will prepare you for a career as a nonprofit manager or a nonprofit lobbyist.
  • Public Administration: This concentration focuses on the American governmental system from an administrative perspective. It’s an excellent choice for students who want to become an administrative services manager, public administration consultant, city manager, or mayor.
  • International Affairs: A concentration in international affairs prepares graduates for foreign policy occupations, such as foreign affairs specialist, foreign service officer, international business manager, or career military officer.
  • Campaigns and Elections: The curriculum for a public policy program with this concentration will cover the techniques and trends in modern political campaigns, including the most effective communication, marketing, and writing techniques. Potential career outcomes include political campaign manager, political consultant, and career politician.

Common degree curriculum

While online master’s in public policy curricula vary by institution, each program typically blends public policy’s analytical and administrative aspects to provide graduates with a broad perspective of the field. Program requirements are usually divided into core and elective courses, with elective courses allowing you to customize your degree.

Compare programs carefully — some will require you to complete a relevant internship before your degree is awarded, and others may require a thesis or capstone project. Also, some programs can be completed entirely online, while others use a hybrid format that incorporates both online and on-campus courses.

Whichever type of program you choose, some of the most common course options include:

  • Policy Analysis: Explores the policy-making process, including how policies are formed as well as the assessment and evaluation of policies.
  • Legal Issues in Public Administration: Provides insight into the key legal issues in government, such as the delegation of legislative power, administrative appeals, and judicial review.
  • Budgeting and Financial Management: Examines budgeting in the public sector and budgetary processes, including concepts like cost estimation, capital financing, cost-benefit analysis, debt management, performance budgeting, and financial statements.
  • Public Policy for Managers: Covers strategic planning, the implementation and evaluation of public policy, and the functions of policy analysis in political and administrative decision-making.
  • Government Regulations and Administrative Law: Probes the impact of regulations and laws on federal and state governments and the American people.

Certification and license preparation

After earning a master’s in public policy and gaining two years of professional experience in political, governmental, or public service, you can apply for certification in public policy from the Academy of Certified Political Analysts. While employers typically don’t require this credential, it will help you stand out in the field and access more job opportunities.

Program accreditation

Only apply to schools approved by a DOE-recognized regional accrediting organization, such as the New England Commission of Higher Education or Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. If your school doesn’t have regional accreditation, you may be unable to access financial aid or transfer credits to another institution if needed.

Ideally, you’ll attend a program that has also received programmatic accreditation from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) — only the best public policy programs are able to meet NASPAA’s quality standards.

Program completion timeframe

The amount of time it takes to complete your master’s degree online largely depends on the type of program you choose. Self-paced programs allow you to work at your own pace, while cohort-based programs require you to log in at specific times for live classes with your fellow classmates. Depending on your motivation, self-paced programs can often be completed much sooner than normal, but cohort classes stick to a set schedule. Online master’s in public policy programs usually require about 36 credit hours, which can be completed in two years when attending full-time.

Employment Outlook for Master’s in Public Policy Graduates

Many job opportunities in public policy require applicants to have at least a master’s degree. Even when only a bachelor’s degree is required, having a master’s will improve your odds of landing interviews and getting hired.

A master’s degree can lead to higher pay as well. Workers with a master’s degree earn $1,661 per week on average, while those with only a bachelor’s make $1,432 per week. That amounts to a difference of nearly $12,000 per year.

This degree will qualify you for a variety of positions in federal, state, and local government. You may be able to find work as an analyst or manager in the private sector as well. Some of the most common occupations for public policy majors are detailed below.

Job Title Job Description Median Yearly Salary Projected Growth Rate (2022 – 2032)
Social and Community Service Manager Social and community service managers coordinate and supervise social service programs and community organizations. Their responsibilities include managing staff members and evaluating the overall effectiveness of programs. $74,240 9%
Top Executive A background in public policy can prepare you to lead organizations such as nonprofits, school districts, and city governments. The primary duties of executives are to devise strategies and policies to ensure the organization meets its overall goals. $100,090 3%
Political Scientist Political scientists study the origin, development, and operation of political systems. They also help plan and develop new policies by analyzing previous policies, political trends, and other related issues. A master’s degree is typically required for entry-level political scientist positions. $128,020 7%

Professional organizations

Establishing professional connections is a crucial part of getting the most out of your master’s in public policy degree. Meeting other professionals within the field allows you to build valuable networks that offer beneficial resources, including invaluable advice and support from those with more experience. One way to achieve these goals is through professional organizations that cater to public policy professionals.

Many organizations offer networking and career development events, online job boards, continuing education opportunities, professional awards, and other members-only services. While these organizations are beneficial at any stage of your career, they’re particularly valuable as you enter the workforce after completing your online master’s in public policy degree. Some notable organizations for professionals with master’s in public policy degrees include:

  • Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM): This organization promotes excellence in public policy and management, with memberships available to institutions, professionals, and students. It hosts multidisciplinary annual conferences, including spring, fall, international, and regional student conferences. It also publishes a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal four times a year and offers a mentor-matching program for student members seeking guidance and support in their career development endeavors.
  • American Society for Public Administration (ASPA): Membership in this organization is available to students, new and long-term professionals, and retirees. It hosts networking events as well as annual conferences and free professional development webinars. It also publishes scholarly journals both in print and electronically, presents professional awards, and posts job listings. Besides the national chapter, it has local chapters that allow you to meet and network within your own geographic area.

Financing Your Online Master’s in Public Policy Degree

Although online master’s degree programs often cost less than traditional on-campus programs, many students still need financial aid to cover tuition and associated fees.

The most important step to finding financial assistance is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is required to apply for loans, grants, and other financial aid opportunities offered by the federal government. Some state governments also use the FAFSA, but others may require you to fill out a separate form to apply for state aid. Many educational institutions utilize the FAFSA to determine whether you qualify for institutional aid, but some have separate applications for scholarships, work-study programs, and other assistance. Scholarships and grants are also frequently available through corporations, nonprofits, and other private sources that require specific application steps.

Student Finance Resources and Guides

With all the different financial aid opportunities available (each with their own set of qualifications, applications, and deadlines), it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. The following resources will help you make sense of your financial aid situation and save as much money on your education as possible.

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