Best Online Master’s Degrees in Public Policy: Guide to Online Programs for 2022

Best Online Master’s Degrees in Public Policy: Guide to Online Programs for 2022
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Earning a degree in public policy opens the door to a wide range of career paths, from becoming a local official or state legislator to working as a researcher who advocates for specific policy issues. It is a broad and competitive field that mainly involves problem-solving and policy-making for organizations in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. If you want to go up the career ladder, the next step for you is to advance your studies and earn a master’s degree in public policy.

Aside from a variety of employment opportunities, you can also expect a higher earning potential with a master’s education in public policy. In a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, it was found that master’s degree holders in public policy earn an average of $19,000 more than bachelor degree holders (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020). Additionally, a master’s degree in public policy qualifies you for career advances and senior positions within the federal government’s pay scale.

In this post, we will provide you with everything you need to know about the best online master’s degrees in public policy. We will take a look at its costs and how it compares to other types of college degrees, especially its traditional degree counterparts. The sections below will also give you an overview of the courses you can expect in the program and the career options that you can choose from after obtaining your degree.

Online Master’s Degree in Public Policy Table of Contents

  1. Can you get a degree completely online?
  2. Will employers take my online degree seriously?
  3. Are online degrees recognized all over the world?
  4. Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Public Policy
  5. How much does an online master’s degree in public policy cost?
  6. What are the requirements of an online master’s degree in public policy?
  7. Courses to expect in online master’s degree in public policy
  8. Things to look for in an online master’s degree in public policy

Can you get a degree completely online?

These days, just about every type of degree that you can think of is attainable online. Whether you want to earn a certification for a certain program or you want to pursue a college degree, there are plenty of credible online learning programs that you can choose from.

Most graduate students nowadays also turn to online schools and universities to pursue a master’s education. Because online degree programs offer greater flexibility in terms of learning schedules, students can sign up for a course and fit their studies around their schedule. For students who are working at the same time, online degree programs can aid them in balancing between career and academic responsibilities.

As it turns out, online education is particularly well suited to students pursuing master’s degrees. According to the latest college statistics, the share of students enrolled in online master’s degree programs more than tripled, from 10% to 31%, between the years 2008 and 2016 (NCES, 2019).

Fast forward to 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in the massive adaptation of online learning approaches to master’s education. The paper “Twelve tips for rapidly migrating to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic” published in the AMEE Journal’s MedEdPublish explores how colleges and universities are adapting to the sudden shift from face-to-face instruction to online education.

As John Sandars and his co-authors cite, “For some schools, this comes as a shift in emphasis for a curriculum that already has a well-integrated online presence. For others, the shift is challenging in that it requires both cultural and technological adaptations that might otherwise have been planned out over a much longer period, but have been forced to rapidly implement changes to accomplish the educational mission despite the disruption.”

Needless to say, online education has become an important aspect of professional training and learning. Through online master’s degree programs, graduate students can gain the specialized skills and knowledge required to advance in their respective fields.

Will employers take my online degree seriously?

Due to the increasing popularity of online education, employers across the world now believe that online degrees hold as much weight and value as their traditional degree counterparts. In a report published by the Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy, it was found that 55% of employers think that there are no differences in the quality of online and traditional education (Gallagher, 2018). Since there are now millions of online degree graduates entering the workforce, hiring managers attest that online degrees are common credentials among job seekers of this generation.

Source: Gallagher (2018)

Employers usually consider the program length and accreditation of an online degree when evaluating the candidates who obtained their education online. Mostly, however, employers care more about the degree level than where it came from. Thus, before entering the workforce, it is important to have a good understanding of where your degree level can take you in terms of employment opportunities.

That being said, obtaining a master’s degree is tied to your potential for career advancement and a higher salary range. It could also increase your career prospects, allowing you to transition to more senior positions, such as those in leadership and management.

Are online degrees recognized all over the world?

In response to the rapidly evolving workforce, organizations from all over the world are taking the necessary steps to find suitable candidates with the right skills and knowledge for certain job roles. Over the past few years, about 33% of employers have raised the educational requirements for prospective employees (Career Builder, 2021). In turn, most companies have also stepped up to make it easier for workers to gain the skills and education required for their jobs.

Since then, online degree programs serve as an ideal solution in providing competency-based education opportunities to students and working professionals alike. As the positive outcomes of online education become more widely documented, more employers and hiring managers are recognizing online degrees as valuable credentials. This means that your online degree can lead you to various career opportunities and a chance to work in different countries worldwide.

Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Public Policy

To address the skills gap in the workforce, a number of employers are either raising their educational requirements or providing their employees with access to advanced education and professional training. According to a report by Career Builder, around 41% of employers are sending their employees back to school to obtain advanced degrees (Career Builder, 2021). As a result of having a workforce with advanced educational credentials, employers have seen a positive impact in terms of higher work quality and productivity across their organizations.

Source: Career Builder (2021)

In the field of public policy, a master’s degree is usually required for more influential positions, such as those of a regional or urban planner, political scientist, survey researcher, and the like. A master’s degree program in public policy prepares you for plenty of employment opportunities in various industry sectors, including government agencies, private companies, and nonprofit organizations. According to the BLS, master’s degree holders in public policy can earn up to $125,350 annually, which is the equivalent of $60.27 per hour (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).

Depending on the school and whether you choose to study full-time or part-time, a master’s degree program in public policy usually takes one to two years to complete. These days, you can find a number of online schools and universities offering online master’s degree programs in public policy. The following sections provide a detailed discussion on the key differences between traditional and online master’s degree programs in public policy.

Learning schedule

Both traditional and online degree programs in public policy typically follow a standard curriculum, except that in an online program, you have greater control of your study schedule. Online degrees usually offer more flexible study sessions, allowing you to balance the demands of work, family, and education. In an online master’s education in public policy, you can access learning materials and resources at any time and collaborate with instructors depending on your preferred schedule.

Learning experience

The learning experience in a traditional classroom is tremendously different from online education. First, a traditional classroom setting allows you to have a meaningful social interaction with your classmates. Unlike in a virtual classroom, in-person interactions can provide healthy connections and interdependent relationships with others.

As public policy touches on several social science topics, a traditional classroom setting for public policy studies can increase student engagement among students and instructors. It provides a conducive environment where you can develop the knowledge and ability to enact real change in policies and programs that serve the public. Additionally, a traditional program for public policy allows you to join campus activities, such as debates and simulations of economic policy changes.

On the other hand, an online master’s degree program in public policy often comes in the form of online course lectures offered through synchronous or asynchronous learning formats. In an asynchronous program, you can access your lectures and reading materials according to your schedule. As a result, it allows you to study in a self-paced manner.

Meanwhile, a synchronous classroom for a master’s education in public policy involves real-time study sessions and instructor-led online classes. Unlike asynchronous classes, synchronous classrooms require you to attend web-based study sessions on a fixed schedule. Additionally, it incorporates interactive modern tools, such as chat rooms, polls, surveys, and shared documents.

Skills and knowledge developed

Whether you have chosen to enroll in a traditional or online program for a master’s degree in public policy, you will gain an extensive knowledge of politics, business policies, and local laws. You will also develop the necessary skills required to advance your career in public policy, such as dealing with policy issues and economic changes, advocating for new policies, and becoming an organization leader. In addition, you will learn more about the design and implementation of laws and regulations.

In an online master’s degree in public policy, studies are focused on setting policy agendas, problem identification, and policy formation and evaluation. Most of the coursework also involves the implementation and management of public policies and programs. However, as most online programs are self-paced, students get the opportunity to hone their time-management skills as well as self-discipline over collaboration.

Is an online degree cheaper?

Online degrees are generally cheaper than traditional degrees. However, the tuition cost of an online degree can vary depending on several factors, such as additional fees for course materials, the number of credits you need, application fees, and expenses for on-site requirements.

In some cases, the type of school also affects the cost of online degrees. For instance, schools that are exclusively online tend to offer lower tuition rates than universities and colleges with both traditional and online degree programs. This is because online schools generally have fewer expenses to incur—they have fewer staff members to pay each month and little to no campus properties to manage and maintain.

The average tuition costs for online degree programs typically range from $38,496 to $60,593 (US News, n.d.).

Is an online degree as good as a regular degree?

In the past, online degrees were generally met with skepticism and negativity. However, the increasing popularity of online education today has established a credible reputation for online degree programs. Since most of the top colleges and universities have also started offering web-based learning programs, online education for different degree levels is becoming a norm in the education sector of many countries worldwide.

Online master’s degree programs provide students with a number of advantages and benefits. First, it enables flexible and self-paced learning, allowing you to juggle work, family, and study schedules. Usually, online course schedules are set depending on your availability.

Second, online education for master’s degrees allows you to form a network of people from across the globe. As online programs are usually accessible to students from all over the world, you can collaborate with people from different cultural backgrounds and broaden your cross-cultural understanding.

Additionally, most online programs nowadays are accredited by different government and industry-specific agencies. This ensures that students have access to quality education and industry-standard academic curriculums.

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

Tuition cost is one of the most important factors to consider when pursuing an online degree program. In general, online degree programs offer more affordable tuition rates because it eliminates additional expenses, such as books and supplies, transportation, and campus activity fees. However, the cost of an online degree can still vary depending on the degree level, the type of institution, and the additional hidden costs that the school may charge.

Tuition costs for an online master’s degree in public policy typically range from $350 to $565 per credit. In total, students should expect to pay between $11,000 and $24,000 for their tuition (US News, n.d.).

There are also a number of ways to cut back on the costs of tuition for online master’s degrees. For instance, you can apply for scholarships provided by the government or private and nonprofit organizations.

Another way is to check if your company provides funding for the advanced educational attainment of its employees. Since the workforce today is more demanding, it is becoming more common for companies and organizations to finance all or part of their employees’ educational expenses.

In fact, a survey by the Aslanian Market Research and Learning House indicated that 32% of online graduate students benefited from tuition reimbursement from their employers (Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, 2018). As a result, employees can gain advanced knowledge and skills in a certain field, while employers can retain motivated and highly-skilled workers in their company.

Is an online public policy degree worth it?

Graduate students in public policy often pursue a master’s degree level of education to advance in their careers or expand their knowledge in the field. As a master’s degree holder, your career prospects in the field of public policy are limitless, given that you have an expansive knowledge of the field and are highly skilled when it comes to handling day-to-day tasks in the workplace.

Contrary to popular belief, public policy covers a much broader range than just governmental work. With a master’s degree in public policy, you can also explore career options in legal or program analysis and nonprofit sectors. According to PayScale, master’s degree holders in public policy can earn up to $123,000 (PayScale, 2021).

Some of the highest-paying career prospects in public policy are those of politicians, political scientists, policy analysts, and lobbyists.

What are the requirements of an online master’s degree in Public Policy?

To obtain your master’s degree in public policy, universities may require a number of requirements before gaining admission to the program. However, this may vary from institution to institution so it is best to confirm the requirements with your prospective schools before applying.

Admission Requirements

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree serves as your pathway to pursuing a master’s level of education in public policy. While most universities accept a bachelor’s education in any discipline, it would still be best for you to have a bachelor’s degree in public policy or in closely related programs, such as political science degree or public administration.

Undergraduate transcripts

Most schools and universities may require you to present your undergraduate transcripts as proof of your educational attainment. These should include a detailed record of all the courses you have taken in your bachelor’s education, as well as the grades and marks given to you for each subject.

Although the competitiveness of the master’s degree program in public policy varies depending on the school, most institutions accept a 2.5 undergraduate grade point average (GPA) or above. However, if you are planning to apply for a scholarship or financial aid, you might need a higher GPA that you must maintain throughout the program.

A study published in i-manager’s Journal of Technology suggests that some of the academic performance of students at the collegiate level are linked to teaching effectiveness, distraction factors, personality traits, study habits, and motivation (Arora & Singh, 2017). These factors, when combined, explain the variation in the academic grades of college students.

As authors Nisha Arora and Neetu Singh cite, “with the increasing number of educational institutes, there is a need to give emphasis on imparting specialized knowledge and technical skills to students to increase their productivity and opportunities for better living which leads towards the economic growth of a country.”

Graduate Record of Examination (GRE) Score

A GRE score is often required for admission to master’s degree programs. This examination evaluates your skills in verbal reasoning, analytical writing, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning.

Source: i-manager’s Journal of Technology (2017)

General Requirements

  • Research and analytical skills. In a public policy program, your research and analytical skills will come in handy when analyzing and interpreting policy reports and research findings. Such abilities will also help you in understanding the dimensions of complex problems involving public policies.
  • Persuasive communication. Public policy work usually involves promoting advocacies for policy changes. Thus, persuasive communication is an important skill that you can use to proactively present your ideas, not only to the public but also to leading authorities and policymakers.
  • Leadership. Most students pursuing a master’s degree in public policy are aiming for senior positions in the field. This means having people to work under your leadership, so it is important to have this skill if you wish to manage your own team of public policy professionals in the future.

What are the technological requirements of students for online learning?

In general, online master’s degree programs require Internet access and a functional laptop or desktop computer. As courses involved in public policy heavily rely on reading materials and instructor-led lectures and discussions, it is essential to have a high-speed connection and computer accessories, such as a headset and webcam. Additionally, proficiency in basic computer programs, such as word processing, presentation software, or other productivity applications can help you get through most of your online coursework.

Courses to Expect in Online Master’s Degree in Public Policy

A master’s degree in public policy is a rigorous program that involves the study of executive, legislative, and administrative processes. Typically, it takes one to two years to complete and requires 30 to 40 credits.

Most online degree courses for a master’s education in public policy are offered through an asynchronous learning format. This means you can study and complete coursework in your free time without having to sacrifice the time you have for work or family. For this reason alone, 22% of graduate students in the United States choose to pursue their education online (Career Karma, 2020).

Here are some of the core courses you can expect in an online master’s degree program in public policy:

  1. Economics of public policy. In this course, you will analyze how public policies affect the distribution of income and the allocation of resources in the economy. You will also learn about patterns of interaction between consumers, industries, and government organizations.
  2. Politics of public policy. Through empirical evidence, theories, and case studies, this course explores the development of public policies from a political point of view. You will study and analyze government decisions and actions when it comes to addressing public issues or problems concerning the entire community.
  3. Public management. This course prepares you for management roles within the public sector. Additionally, you will cover topics about public governance and public policy development and analysis.
  4. Law and public policy. Studies in this course will give you a deeper understanding of existing public policies and the potential changes for reformed and future policies. Moreover, you will learn about the relationship between court systems, legislation, and public policy.
  5. Policy analysis. Developing practical skills and techniques for effective policy analysis is the main objective of this course. Through topical and global case studies, you will gain a better understanding of how activists, civil servants, and others implement laws and the goals of elected officials.

Things to Look for in an Online Master’s Degree in Public Policy

The massive adaptation of online learning in colleges and universities is making it possible for more people to pursue their education online. In the case of working professionals, this means online degree programs are becoming more accessible and easily attainable.

According to a report by UTEP Connect, 68% of online students are experienced professionals, while 36% consider themselves as industry switchers who wish to move from one career specialization to another. On the other hand, 34% of online students are working professionals pursuing a higher degree level to advance in their careers (UTEP Connect, 2018).

Source: UTEP Connect (2018)

Although online education offers the flexibility that working professionals need to balance their career and education, not all online programs are created equal. On that note, here are some of the key factors you must consider when choosing an online master’s degree program in public policy:


Most online master’s degree programs in public policy allow you to choose a concentration area depending on your intended career path. For instance, you can choose to specialize in local government management, which opens up a variety of employment opportunities in public safety, economic development, public works, and more. Other popular specialization options include healthcare policy, environmental policy, economic policy, and nonprofit management.


For online schools and universities, being granted accreditation means that programs have met or exceeded the standards defined by experts in their respective fields. Thus, choosing an accredited master’s degree program in public policy ensures that the education you will receive has gone through a rigorous accreditation process. For public policy degree programs, the main accrediting body is the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA).

Job placement and graduation rates

In many ways, the popularity of an online school plays an important role in determining the credibility of the programs that they offer. After all, a reputable online school or university is known for producing successful graduates and positive job placement rates. Data about student retention and the kinds of organizations that employ graduates of the school can also give you valuable insights into the reputation of a certain degree program to employers.

Student support and services

Student support and services are other important factors to consider when choosing an online master’s degree program. Most schools and universities provide proactive support to students enrolled in an online degree program, especially when it comes to using the learning technologies available. In this way, students and educators alike can maximize the academic tools given to them.

The Future of Master’s Degree Holders in Public Policy

Just as in any profession, a master’s degree is often not necessary to establish a career path. In the case of public policy, however, a master’s degree serves as your gateway to more influential positions that can help you make a difference in your community. As a master’s degree holder in public policy, not only will you have a competitive edge against your bachelor graduate peers, but you will also gain the necessary skills and extended knowledge to develop and reform programs that affect society.

Obtaining an online master’s degree in public policy takes a lot of hard work and intelligent decisions. Whether you choose to pursue a career in governmental organizations or in nonprofit and private sectors, a master’s education in public policy can offer versatile career prospects in policy-related fields, such as political science, urban planning, policy research, and city management.

On that note, hopefully, this guide has provided you with the information you need to obtain your online master’s degree in public policy. In case you also want to learn about similar degree programs, you can check out this guide to the best online degrees.



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