What are the Costs and Benefits of a Public Health Master’s Degree?

Black and white photo of students wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Q&A with Angela Beck

Clinical Assistant Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education

 

In a recent essay published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), Angela Beck, clinical assistant professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, discusses the costs and benefits of public health master’s degrees. We spoke to her to learn more about the essay and take an additional look at the piece through the lens of COVID-19. 

What factors play into graduate education enrollment—in general and for public health degrees?

There are several external forces to consider when thinking about graduate education enrollment. First, there have been major demographic shifts in the US, resulting in fewer high school graduates going to college and, subsequently, graduate school. 

Second, economic conditions are strongly associated with graduate education enrollment. In a good economy with a strong job market and low unemployment, graduate school enrollment declines; in times of weaker economy and higher unemployment, graduate school enrollment increases. The declining enrollment of international students in US graduate programs is also a concern.

COVID-19 also brings an uncertain variable into play. There is national attention on public health, bringing more recognition of the important work done by our field and economic distress is yielding high unemployment rates so it’s possible that we will start to see a rise in graduate education enrollment, and public health graduate education specifically. 

Epidemiologists and biostatisticians have become household words thanks to COVID-19. How do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic impacts interest in public health degrees?

Public health is a broad field composed of many disciplines and there is increasing attention on the work of those public health professionals and researchers who are addressing issues of health equity and social determinants of health, which have clearly been highlighted through the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 is highlighting the essential work of public health professionals. Epidemiologists and biostatisticians are critical components of the workforce, as they investigate and monitor disease trends. But public health is a broad field composed of many disciplines and there is increasing attention on the work of those public health professionals and researchers who are addressing issues of health equity, and social determinants of health, which have clearly been highlighted through the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health degrees offer a wide range of training and specializations. All of them have value in preparedness, response, and recovery from public health emergencies such as COVID-19.

It’s evident that there is a benefit to having a public health degree. How would you explain the benefits to someone looking to obtain a graduate degree in public health?

COVID-19 is showing the general population that public health is everywhere—it impacts everything from how soon we can restart the economy to how we can safely educate students in classrooms.

I would start by explaining the core values of public health, which center on professionalism and trust, health and safety, health justice and equity, interdependence and solidarity, human rights and civil liberties, and inclusivity and engagement. If these are values that spark passion in someone considering graduate education, public health is a good home for them. They will benefit from a fulfilling career of service and positive impact on population health. 

The interdisciplinary nature of public health education makes the degree transportable across sectors. Graduates seek careers in hospital administration, public health practice, academic research, corporate work, non-profit leadership, among others. This adds to the value proposition of a public health master’s degree. 

COVID-19 is showing the general population that public health is everywhere—it impacts everything from how soon we can restart the economy to how we can safely educate students in classrooms. Public health skills are needed in many different sectors domestically and globally. We need leaders who can mobilize partnerships, work with the community, and leverage the expertise of multiple sectors to solve complex problems. Public health master’s graduates are, perhaps uniquely, qualified to do all of these things. 

What are the key points that you want someone to take away from this analysis?

We hope that the analysis gives those considering a public health degree some tools for decision-making. Like all degree programs and training efforts, there are benefits and costs associated with these decisions. 

Monetary return on investment is, understandably, a key consideration for many, and public health degrees have some variability in this regard—at least for earnings associated with the first year post-graduation. That can change as careers advance. 

Public health tends to have favorable outcomes associated with job satisfaction and sense of purpose, so the takeaway for prospective students is to consider many data points available when deciding whether to pursue public health graduate education.

The takeaway for other stakeholders—such as governmental public health decision-makers and academic public health leaders—is that prospective students now have more information available to them to weigh costs and benefits of a public health master’s degree. 

We, collectively, need to adapt to an increasingly competitive graduate education landscape by maximizing student benefit while minimizing costs through many different strategies. For example, loan repayment and debt forgiveness programs for public health workers are one strategy that has gained some attention as part of COVID-19 response. Universities are facing severe budgetary challenges right now so it is important to determine the right balance of tuition cost and other benefits provided to students. 

The public health system has been underfunded and under-resourced for many years and we’re seeing the devastating effects of that in the COVID-19 response. Public health needs a strong pipeline to continue to protect the health of the public. The field must adapt in innovative ways to recruit and retain future public health leaders.


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