Evaluating Public Health and Related Programs: Selection Criteria and Methodology

Public Health Online provides current and future students, as well as young and seasoned professionals, with in-depth research-driven information about college and career opportunities in the field. Part of this mission centers on our lists of top public health degree programs that we have compiled to help anyone seeking a degree in the field make smarter decisions.

Top lists are more than just fun to browse through – when they are thoughtfully compiled based on relevant criteria they can also serve an important function. Our goal is to put together lists of exceptional public health and related degree programs as a way to help our readers further their careers without wasting time and money. We do this by combing through college websites to get familiar with accredited graduate programs, looking at how faculty members have contributed to public health research and literature as well as the breadth of a school’s alumni network and the kind of work they have gone on to do. We consult tuition and fee tables in search of programs that offer the right combination of quality and value, and even try to get a feel for each school’s culture and philosophy on public health, along with the relationships the school has forged with NGOs and government agencies at home and abroad.

We believe the many aspects of a program that come together to create an exceptional student experience can’t be reduced to numbers alone, so no formulas are used in an attempt to score or rank programs. Instead, our editorial team spends countless hours poring over literally hundreds of accredited programs before hand selecting the ones we feel good presenting as our top recommendations. In the end, we’re able to offer a set of carefully curated lists you won’t find anywhere else.

Public health is a huge field and there is plenty of room for expertise in the many areas of specialization that are available. Each one of the programs on our lists offers something unique, and all come equally highly recommended.

Here’s what we look for when identifying the programs we consider to be the very best:

Selection Criteria for Master’s Degree Programs in Public Health and Related Fields

All our lists use the same baseline criteria to establish a minimum set of consistent qualifications for the programs we end up selecting and recommending. Those include:

General and Specialty Accreditation to Verify Academic Quality

The accreditation process may be one of the most basic and primary elements we use in our initial evaluations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important one. Think of it as the first filter. To even be considered, programs must be housed in schools that hold accreditation in good standing from one of the seven regional organizations recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the US Department of Education, as well as programmatic accreditation. In the sphere of public health graduate degrees, that means holding accreditation from CEPH, the Council on Education for Public Health.

CEPH performs in-depth evaluations with respect to public health-oriented graduate degrees and the departments that offer them. CEPH accreditation ensures that curriculum is aligned with the commonly accepted standards for public health education to make sure programs are capable of producing professionals with the full array of knowledge and skills they’re expected to have before entering the field.

CEPH conducts site visits to asses things like instructor qualifications, research and service efforts, student outcomes, and fieldwork opportunities. CEPH goes through it all line by line to make sure schools are worthy of the organization’s stamp of approval.

In the end, CEPH requires MPH programs to teach to 22 different core competencies it considers to be critical for graduates in the field of public health. That’s exactly the kind of vetting you need when considering your options, and that was just where we started in our MPH evaluation process.

Preparation for Specialized Credentials

We also tend to select programs that offer dedicated preparation for the exams required to obtain specialized credentials relevant in the field. These include the Certified in Public Health (CPH) exam administered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, and even the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) tests administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing.

Relationships with Public Health Organizations

Public health degrees almost always involve internships since this is a field where experiential learning is key to skill mastery, and fieldwork is a given for any CEPH-accredited program since accreditation is dependent of meeting CEPH’s Applied Practice Experience requirements.

The school partnerships with government agencies and NGOs that make those opportunities possible can dramatically shape future career choices and trajectory. We looked for programs that partner with big-name organizations like WHO and the CDC as well as with smaller, more local reputable non-profits and government agencies to give students the full range of options for getting real-world experience in the field.

Academic and Career Counseling Services

Because public health can be a very complicated field to navigate, both in terms of choosing a career path and in developing the expertise to navigate it successfully, solid academic advising is a must. Colleges with strong academic counseling and mentorship programs designed to help you sort through the many complex choices you need to make en route to a successful career are always at the top of our lists.

Job Placement Assistance Pre- and Post-Graduation

There is great demand for public health staff all over the world but finding a job in the field is not the same thing as finding the job that’s right for you. Colleges with skilled job placement departments able to connect you to a deep alumni network and help you make connections in the professional community can help bring your career goals within reach.

Breadth of Concentrations for Different Career Paths

Public health is a broad field, but, uniquely, one that also involves tremendous depth… an entire career can be spent tracking epidemiological data on a macro level or combatting a single type of protozoa, for example, while other public health professionals specialize in obesity and nutrition or dive into the intricacies of public policy.

Getting the right kind of education to succeed in any of these areas requires finding a program that not only offers a specialization in that area, but one that delivers the expertise required to master it. We look for schools that have many concentration options on offer, but more importantly those that can teach each of them with equal proficiency.

Where we have lists that dig into a specific field related to public health, such as nutrition, we look at field-specific programmatic accreditation, concentrations and depth of education specific to that field.

Some schools have notable connections to particular agencies or contacts in different parts of the world that make them particularly well-suited to teaching certain concentrations— we note and weigh those connections appropriately.

Involving Grad Students in Research

Public health is a constantly evolving field, having to adapt to changing conditions in human habitation and environmental conditions at the same pace as emerging threats. That makes research an especially important skill even for front-line public health staff, and the field has a long and rich history of experimentalism and innovation on the ground leading to important breakthroughs. So we look for schools with a heavy commitment to research and a devotion to involving graduate students by providing them with opportunities to participate so they can make contributions of their own.

Faculty Experience and Contributions to Research and Literature

No matter how impressive and well-funded a university might be, none of it will mean much without capable and dedicated instructors. It’s hard to argue against the fact that professors, and their collective personal and professional experiences and philosophies, form not only the overall culture of a school, but also make all the difference when it comes to creating an exceptional student experience and preparing graduates who go on to be effective and influential in the field.

You can be sure every one of the programs we feature is led by instructors with a lot of experience, both as professionals in the field and in their tenure as professors. There are no shortcuts to gaining experience and expertise in this field, and it almost always means holding a doctoral degree, having made important contributions to research and literature in peer reviewed journals, and sometimes even being recognized with awards for those contributions.

Getting the Most Out of the Cost of Tuition

The cost of a public health master’s program at public colleges and universities can range anywhere from just under $20,000 to well over $30,000. Students paying out-of-state tuition rates and those attending private collages can see tuition rates come in at twice that. And this is before you even start talking about books and fees. Covering the cost of tuition is something every graduate student wraps their head around long before enrolling in a program, but that isn’t to say cost doesn’t matter. In a field like public health where budgets are always an issue, anybody cut out for policy work in the field will expect to get the most for every tuition dollar they spend.

A low tuition rate alone wasn’t enough to get a program added to one of our lists, but value was something we gave a lot of weight to. If a school is able to offer at least as much or more than other similar programs at a considerably lower cost, it had a good chance of making the cut.

Additional Considerations for Programs Offered 100% Online

All of our featured programs are online in some respect, yet there are often major differences in hybrid and fully online programs. These criteria apply exclusively to the fully online options that we feature

Adequate Online Teaching Systems and Technical Support

We look at the technical capabilities of the school’s online course management systems (CMS) and support for remote students. We like to see 24/7 support options and clear instructions for getting connected to course content and live video for coursework offered synchronously, all backed up by a professional and dedicated IT department.

Access to School Resources from Anywhere

When you’re not located anywhere near campus, it can be a challenge to get access to the facilities and data that you need to conduct the kind of research some of your assignments are going to require. We searched for schools that go the extra mile to form partnerships with public health policy institutes and universities with research facilities to ensure that even online students get equal access to labs, libraries, journals, and the other basic data and equipment necessary to succeed as a graduate student and professional in the field.

Maximum Flexibility without Compromises

If you’re looking for an online program in public health, there’s usually a good reason for it – you want a program that can adapt to your current lifestyle and needs. We seek out online program options that give you the maximum discretion as to when and how you complete your coursework, while still keeping you plugged in to your instructors and fellow students.

That includes finding those with multiple or rolling start dates throughout the year, asynchronous coursework options, and programs that allow you to defer completion beyond the standard timeline in case your circumstances change.