Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

by TBS Staff

Updated September 29, 2022

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A master's degree in public policy trains students in policy analysis, public management, and project management, which can apply to many career paths.

Have you ever wanted to learn about how social services programs develop? Then you might want a career in public policy. Public policy encapsulates how government agencies and nonprofits solve real-world problems. If you want to pursue roles in public policy, you can start by earning an online master's in public policy (MPP).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that public policy and social services graduates earned a median salary of $45,000 in 2018. The COVID-19 crisis has created new obstacles for public policy professionals to solve, meaning that the field is expected to remain in demand.

The Best Online Master's in Public Policy Programs

#1 Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

Johns Hopkins University

  • Baltimore, MD
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The online master's in public policy program, offered by Johns Hopkins University from its Baltimore campus, ranks as a top program. The MA in public management program encourages career training throughout its curriculum, preparing graduates for leadership positions. With a master's degree, candidates advance their current career or move into new professional paths.

The master's curriculum examines theoretical and practical perspectives on public policy. Learners individualize the course of study by selecting electives and concentrations. Applicants with a background in public policy typically meet the admission requirements.

Online enrollees work with the program to identify internship opportunities at approved sites in their local communities. Internships and other practicum activities provide professional networking opportunities.

Johns Hopkins University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 11%

Total Online Master's Programs: 30

Program Name: MA in public management

Graduate Tuition In State: $55,350

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $55,350

Average Tuition
In-state
$55,350
Out-of-state
$55,350
Retention Rate
97%
Admission Rate
11%
Students Enrolled
27,079
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
46% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#2 Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

Penn State World Campus

  • University Park, PA
  • 4 years
  • Online

From its campus in University Park, Penn State World Campus offers an online master's in public policy. The master of professional studies in criminal justice policy and administration program encourages career training throughout its curriculum, preparing graduates for leadership positions. A master's degree can also prepare candidates for opportunities in new fields.

The master's curriculum explores public policy research and methodologies. Learners individualize the program to prepare for focused careers. The master's program recommends that applicants bring a background in public policy or a related field.

Online enrollees coordinate with the program to complete internships at approved sites in their local area. Graduate students grow their professional connections through internships and virtual networking events.

Penn State World Campus at a Glance:

Type of School: Public, four-year

Admission Rate: 76%

Total Online Master's Programs: 52

Program Name: Master of professional studies in criminal justice policy and administration

Graduate Tuition In State: $21,682

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $21,682

Average Tuition
In-state
$13,484
Out-of-state
$13,484
Retention Rate
Not provided
Admission Rate
76%
Students Enrolled
Not provided
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
Not provided
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#3 Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

  • Edinburg, TX
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Located in Edinburg, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley enrolls master's students in its top-ranked online public policy program. The master of public affairs with a concentration in public administration emphasizes advanced practice skills, training graduates for leadership roles and an increased earning potential. After completing a master's degree, candidates often pursue career advancement in their current field or a new one.

The master's curriculum covers methodological and research perspectives on public policy. Learners choose electives or a specialization to gain focused career training. Applicants without a background in public policy may need to complete prerequisite courses before enrolling in the master's program.

Online enrollees add to their resume by pursuing internship opportunities at approved locations in their area. Graduate students also build professional connections by attending networking events.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at a Glance:

Type of School: Public, four-year

Admission Rate: 80%

Total Online Master's Programs: 17

Program Name: Master of public affairs with a concentration in public administration

Graduate Tuition In State: $5,959

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $13,555

Average Tuition
In-state
$6,664
Out-of-state
$16,792
Retention Rate
76%
Admission Rate
80%
Students Enrolled
29,113
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
51% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#4 Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

American University

  • Washington, DC
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

From its campus in the District of Columbia, American University hosts a top-ranked master's in public policy program. The master of public administration and policy program helps graduates increase their salary potential and take on more professional responsibilities. A master's degree allows candidates to move up the career ladder or pursue a new career path.

The master's curriculum explores theoretical and practical perspectives in the public policy field. Learners choose electives or a specialization to stand out in a competitive job market. Applicants without a degree in public policy or a related field may need to meet prerequisite requirements to enroll in the program.

Online enrollees complete internships in their local community to gain real-world experience. The program encourages graduate students to expand their professional connections through internships and networking events.

American University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 36%

Total Online Master's Programs: 16

Program Name: Master of public administration and policy

Graduate Tuition In State: $30,351

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $30,351

Average Tuition
In-state
$49,070
Out-of-state
$49,070
Retention Rate
87%
Admission Rate
36%
Students Enrolled
14,318
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
20% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#5 Best Online Master’s in Public Policy Programs

University of Northern Iowa

  • Cedar Falls, IA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Based in Cedar Falls, the University of Northern Iowa hosts a top-rated online master of public policy. The master of public policy program helps graduates move into leadership roles and increase their earning potential. A master's degree can also train candidates for roles in new industries.

The master's curriculum emphasizes both practical and theoretical approaches to public policy. Learners individualize the course of study by selecting electives and concentrations. Applicants without a degree in public policy or a related field may need to meet prerequisite requirements to enroll in the program.

Online enrollees work with the program to identify internship opportunities at approved sites in their local communities. The program encourages professional development activities, including networking events, so graduate students can expand their professional connections.

University of Northern Iowa at a Glance:

Type of School: Public, four-year

Admission Rate: 79%

Total Online Master's Programs: 14

Program Name: Master of public policy

Graduate Tuition In State: $9,159

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $21,375

Average Tuition
In-state
$7,665
Out-of-state
$19,949
Retention Rate
83%
Admission Rate
79%
Students Enrolled
10,477
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
26% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission
Best Online Programs

Online Online Master's in Public Policy Programs Ranking Guidelines

We ranked these degree programs based on quality, curricula, school awards, rankings, and reputation.

Our Methodology

Here at TheBestSchools.org, we take the trust and welfare of our readers very seriously. When making our school and program rankings, our top priority is ensuring that our readers get accurate, unbiased information that can help them make informed decisions about online education. That's why we've developed a rigorous ranking methodology that keeps the needs of our readers front and center.

Our proprietary, multi-criteria ranking algorithm analyzes key data indicators — as collected by the federal government — for each school or program. What data we use depends on the focus of each specific ranking, but in all cases, our ranking methodology is impartial: Schools cannot buy better rankings at TBS.

While specific criteria under consideration can vary by ranking, there are a few data points that we value most highly. They are affordability, academic quality, and online enrollment. Below, we break down our algorithm to help you understand what you're getting when you use one of our rankings.

  • Academics
  • Affordability
  • Online Enrollment

Data Sources

The data used in TBS rankings comes primarily from the federal government, and much of it is provided by the schools themselves. We aggregate and analyze this data to build our rankings.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is our primary source. Its data comes from annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Every college, university, or technical school with access to federal financial aid must participate in these surveys, which include questions about enrollment, graduation rates, finances, and faculty qualifications. This is publicly available data, which you can access yourself through the College Navigator.

Additionally, because we value a personal touch and the professional experience of our staff and Academic Advisory Board, we vet all results and adjust rankings as necessary based on our collected knowledge of schools and degree programs. Depending on the ranking, we may obtain additional input from AcademicInfluence.com, subject matter experts, prior TBS ranking lists, or other sources we deem relevant to a particular ranking.

Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology

About Our Ranking Factors

Here at TBS, we value what you value: quality education, affordability, and the accessibility of online education. These factors guide all of our program rankings.

Each of these factors are further broken down into weighted subfactors. For example, retention rates are weighted more heavily than availability of program options because they are a better indicator of student success.

We chose the following factors for our rankings because of their influence on learning experiences and graduate outcomes. However, students should always balance our rankings against their personal priorities. For instance, a learner who needs a fully online program may prioritize online flexibility more than our rankings do. Our rankings are designed to help you make a decision — not to make a decision for you.

Academics - 75%

Affordability - 15%

Online Enrollment - 10%

In all our school rankings and recommendations, we work for objectivity and balance. We carefully research and compile each ranking list, and as stated in our advertising disclosure, we do NOT permit financial incentives to influence rankings. Our articles never promote or disregard a school for financial gain.

If you have questions about our ranking methodology, please feel free to connect with our staff through contact page.

We thank you for your readership and trust.

Featured Online Master's in Public Policy Programs

What Is an Online Master's in Public Policy?

An online master's in public policy is a specialized degree that prepares you for leadership roles in public policy creation. People who complete this degree typically pursue management or urban and regional planning roles with government agencies, nonprofits, or other public service organizations. Other students pursue private sector global development jobs, which require in-depth knowledge of regional, national, and international policy.

This degree takes two years to complete and covers a more broad curriculum than related specialties, such as nonprofit management or public administration. Graduates typically leave online master's in public policy programs with strengthened skills in research and statistical analysis, along with an understanding of public policy's effect on economics, society, and law.

Choosing an Online Master's in Public Policy Program

To find the best online master's in public policy, you must consider several factors that influence the learning experience. Program cost is often a major sticking point; research whether in-state public schools offer discounted tuition, especially for online students. You should also consider program length and whether prospective programs fit into your career timeline.

Pay special attention to whether programs offer concentrations or dual-degrees relevant to your career plans. Also, consider whether prospective programs have practicum requirements or internships, and research whether you can meet those requirements locally.

Accreditation for Public Policy Programs

When researching online MPP programs, it's necessary to ensure both program and university accreditation. For graduate and academic degrees, you should only consider regionally accredited schools; national accreditation is best suited to vocational or career schools.

Programmatic accreditation demonstrates that a specific degree program meets the field's professional standards. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) accredits master's programs in public policy, public administration, public affairs, and nonprofit management. Attending a NASPAA-accredited public policy program ensures a quality education.

What Can I Expect When Pursuing an MPP Online?

Though schools vary in course and concentration offerings, public policy master's programs generally share courses in economics, law, management, and policy analysis. The following list includes some common course offerings in a typical online master's in public policy.

Common Courses in Public Policy Programs

  • Introduction to Public Policy: In introductory courses, graduate students learn about policy analysis, the economics of public policy, and the political context for public policy. Coursework may also cover public management skills, policy implementation, and negotiating in the public sector.
  • Advanced Policy Analysis: Many courses incorporate policy analysis projects. Enrollees conduct research and create a detailed policy analysis from a case study as part of their training. Programs may connect students with real-world clients for their projects.
  • Law and Public Policy: Graduate learners study the laws and regulations that affect public policy, including court decisions, legislation, and administrative regulations. Coursework emphasizes legal research skills, the relationships between lawmaking agencies, and the connection between law and public policy. Enrollees may review case studies as part of their training.
  • Public Management: Degree-seekers learn to manage people and respond to crises. Enrollees apply data and evidence to public management problems at the local, national, and international levels.
  • Politics and Public Policy: Coursework examines the influence of politics on the development of new policies, including their acceptance and implementation. The course uses case studies and interpretative works.

Public Policy Concentrations

Education Policy

This concentration explores the intersection between public policy and educational policy, reviewing the history of education regulations and how they impact school operation today. Course topics include urban education, economics in higher education, and organizational analysis.

Health Policy

The health policy concentration prepares enrollees for careers in medical and health services management. Students graduate with a better understanding of how national and global healthcare public research can influence healthcare management policy. Common course topics include the economics of behavioral health and state health policy.

International Development

This concentration investigates policywork aimed at assisting developing or recovering nations. Topics include conflict and post-conflict recovery, political development, and economic planning. Graduates can effect positive change for struggling nations by working with NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, like the U.N.

Politics and Governance

Students interested in working in local and regional government can pursue a politics and governance concentration, exploring the impact of government policies in regional, national, and international contexts. Course topics include politics of public affairs, economics for policy analysis, and economics of development.

Public and Nonprofit Management

Students interested in a management career spent helping public and nonprofit agencies with fundraising, self-advocacy, and program development should consider this concentration. Coursework explores econometrics, stakeholder communication, and how to evaluate programs and policies.

Science and Technology Policy

This concentration explores how policy influences the pace of scientific research. Course topics include economics of innovation, design thinking for public policy innovators, and ending poverty with technology.

Social Policy

The social policy concentration investigates the design and analysis of social policy. Topics in this track include child welfare, community organization, and the role of courts in public policy. Students receive a broad view of how social policy affects society at all levels.

Urban Policy

Students interested in working in urban or regional planning should consider this concentration. Coursework focuses on policy issues faced by local and regional governing bodies and agencies, exploring topics like global urban culture and sustainable transportation planning.

Public Policy Joint and Dual Degrees

Many public policy master's programs offer joint or dual-degree options. A joint or dual-degree program can increase chances of employment, especially in niche careers. For example, a management/public policy dual master's degree can help you secure a job in nonprofit or public management. Urban and regional planning jobs might also call for a public policy dual degree in urban planning.

Below, you will find some common programs available for public policy joint or dual degrees.

  • Business
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Government
  • International policy
  • Law
  • Management science
  • Medicine
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Public Policy Careers

An online master's in public policy provides a solid foundation for careers in the private and public sectors. Public policy majors typically work within three main areas: management, urban and regional planning, and political science. Keep in mind that some public policy careers require additional education or credentialing for entry-level roles.

Political Scientist

Political scientists conduct research on political systems and collect data about policy impact, usually for government agencies, nonprofits, or news publications. They then gather their findings to present in papers or to stakeholders. They often weigh in on policy decisions and forecast projections for social, political, or economic trends.

A political scientist needs a master's in political science or a related field, like public policy, to practice. Currently, no state has licensure requirements for political science. Working in this field requires a passion for politics and political theory, along with strong writing skills.

Median Salary: $122,220 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 6%

Medical and Health Services Managers

Medical and health services managers manage the business activities of healthcare providers, such as hospitals, group practices, and nursing homes. Their duties include managing healthcare facility staff, maintaining patient databases, and developing new programs.

Working as a medical and health services manager requires at least a bachelor's in a management-related major. A public policy major may need to first earn a bachelor's in management or include a management concentration in their public policy master's degree to qualify. Currently, no state has licensure requirements for this career. This field typically appeals to people with strong interpersonal, communication, and problem-solving skills.

Median Salary: Projected Job Growth (2019-2029):

Urban and Regional Planners

Urban and regional planners decide how local government managed and develops property. They help create communities, accommodate population growth, plan public transit, and implement sustainable city practices.

Working as an urban or regional planner requires a master's in urban and regional planning from a program accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board. A public policy student may consider earning their master's as a dual degree with a planning master's. Only a few states require licensure for this profession. Urban and regional planning usually appeals to people with strong skills in project evaluation and management, along with a curiosity for how cities and communities function.

Median Salary: $4,350 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 11%

Social and Community Service Managers

Social and community service managers oversee social and community welfare programs and organizations. They often work with organizations that serve specific populations, such as children, veterans, or unhoused people, or they tackle specific societal problems, such as substance abuse or hunger.

Social and community service managers typically need a bachelor's in a management-related major. A public policy graduate needs to hold a management degree or relevant previous experience to enter the field. Currently, no states have licensure requirements for these managers. Social and community service managers need strong interpersonal skills and a deep interest in supporting social welfare to succeed.

Median Salary: $67,150 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 17%

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Difference Between Public Policy and Public Administration

Public policy creates laws and frameworks for society with the help of statistics and research, while public administration implements those rules.

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

A master's degree in public policy prepares you for planning, management, and political science roles in the private and public sectors.

What Is the Difference Between a Master of Public Administration (MPA) and an MPP?

An MPP focuses on public policy alone, whereas the less-specialized MPA takes a broader focus, preparing graduates for public service careers in administration.

Does Public Policy Pay Well?

A public policy career can pay well. PayScale reports that the 90th percentile of political scientists -- a common career in this field -- earn over $99,000 annually.

What Does MPP Degree Mean?

A master's in public policy curriculum focuses on policy analysis, economics, and law. It prepares graduates for a highly specialized career influencing policy creation.

Public Policy Professional Organizations

ASPA represents professionals working in public and nonprofit administration. This organization offers networking events and professional development opportunities through its local chapters and sections. ASPA also publishes research and maintains a job board. APPAM promotes excellence in public policy research, analysis, and education. The association hosts an annual research conference, publishes a peer-reviewed journal on public policy and management, and encourages student participation in its offerings. Members have access to the association's career advice and job listings.

Header Image Credit: Mangostar | Shutterstock

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