Who should get an online master’s degree in public health?

BY Peter Olsen-PhillipsApril 20, 2022, 12:54 PM
Students walk on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, as seen in December 2020. (Jose M. Osorio—Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced millions of people to the fundamental concepts of public health. Previously, when many of us thought of health professionals, only providers working in clinical settings came to mind. The harsh lessons of the public health emergency taught many people about the basics of what public health professionals do. While doctors and nurses treat individuals, those in public health work to keep whole populations healthy, safe, and thriving.

A student in an online master’s of public health (MPH) program learns how to improve and protect the health of communities. The degree covers a variety of specializations and future practice settings—from community health workers to workplace and environmental safety professionals—where job growth is expected to keep pace with or exceed the national average over the next decade.

The combination of high-quality instruction and the flexibility of remote learning means that graduates can expect to be well-prepared to join the public health workforce while pursuing their degree in a way that fits with a busy schedule. If you’re considering the degree, here’s how to know what type of students are a good fit for an MPH program.

MPH programs seek students from diverse backgrounds

Just as the career goals of incoming public health students vary, so do their age and educational and career backgrounds. An online MPH program, which generally spans 42 to 46 credit hours, may be a good option for those students who need to work while attending school, who are unable to relocate to attend a residential program, or whose current employer provides tuition benefits.

At Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, students in the online MPH programs generally fall into one of three categories, according to Alicia Battle, associate dean for online programs. These groups range from recent grads from undergraduate programs to traditional distance learners.

Among the group of recent undergrads, some students in a master’s program don’t have the means to attend graduate school without working full-time, or may not be able to afford a move to attend school in-person. Tulane sees enrollment from a second group: people who completed their undergraduate degree a few years prior and didn’t initially plan on pursuing a graduate degree. 

“After a year or two years, really three years, of doing that ‘something else,’ they realized for them to really be where they’d like to be career wise, they need the credential,” Battle explains. “They may not be able to relocate. They don’t necessarily want to quit their job. Or they may be fortunate enough to work for an organization or a company that provides tuition remission or some kind of tuition scholarship.”

The final category of students is made up of traditional distance learners, or older students who have a career, family, or both, and are seeking to continue their education to heighten their expertise in public health and advance in their career. “They realize they’re not going to get promoted, they’re not going to get that next raise until they have that credential,” says Battle. “They’re just not going to stop, move, and live in a residence hall on a campus to go back to school. And they typically are going part-time.”

Likewise, many students who enroll in the part-time MPH program at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School have significant career experience, according to Marie Diener-West, chair of the program. “Most of the time, the reason the part-time, online program is attractive is because [students] are entrenched in their work responsibilities and have both professional and personal commitments,” she notes. “And it’s a lot more flexible to do an online program.”

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School requires that applicants have both work experience in a health-related field and some coursework in math and science. Part-time students in the MPH program have the option of completing their degree fully online, in-person, or a combination of the two, allowing for more flexibility for working professionals.

Students should seek out high-quality, high-touch programs

Those people who are considering matriculating to an online MPH program should pay special attention to the institutions’ accreditation in advance.

“In researching the program, they should understand what accreditation means,” says Moose Alperin, director of the executive MPH program at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. CEPH accreditation—which is short for the Council for Education and Public Health—is “a really important thing” in the public health world, she adds.

Students who want to thrive in this field should seek out high-quality, rigorous programs that emphasize practical learning experiences and afford them an opportunity to network and work with leading practitioners in their field, similar to a residential program.

Emory’s executive MPH program encourages student engagement by utilizing a hybrid style of program, where students spend a long weekend on campus at the beginning and end of each semester. Aimed at working professionals, the program requires students to have at least three years of relevant work experience. And its hybrid format allows for more flexibility for busy professionals than a traditional residential program.

Don’t confuse flexibility with a lack of engagement. High-quality online programs are not like the low-touch distance education of previous generations. “We are not a phone-it-in, ‘correspondence program’ at all,” says Alperin. 

“The faculty in our program are intentionally folks that represent both academic public health, as well as public health practice,” she adds. “We have a number of individuals who work at top institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose headquarters is physically the next block over.”

Online MPH programs offer flexibility

People considering an online MPH program should also pay special attention to the timing of classes and events. Though courses in most programs can be completed asynchronously—meaning students don’t need to log into a lecture at a specific time—some seminars or networking events may require students to join live.

In many instances, however, institutions have increased their remote options for students in recent years. The wider adoption of streaming and remote working technologies precipitated by the pandemic has made more content available to remote students and affords opportunities for connecting with faculty and other students than would have been possible otherwise.

“A very small silver lining of the pandemic was that our part-time students have access to a lot more than they did before,” Diener-West tells Fortune.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.