The Best MPH Program For You: A Guide for your Evaluation and Selection Process

Published on: Oct 13, 2023

A Master of Public Health degree will prepare you to fill critical needs in a variety of settings to improve well-being. Trained public health professionals are needed to investigate the origins of disease and disease outbreaks and treatments, design public health programs and communications campaigns, write and consult on policies, and educate the public on health topics, among countless other essential functions that keep our health system functioning.

Recognition of the importance of public health has led to increased enrollment in public health programs in the United States with the number of MPH graduates increasing from around 4,500 in 1992 to almost 18,000 in 20191. This has also led to an increase in public health schools and programs to educate these graduates. 

Public Health Schools and Public Health Programs: What’s the Difference?

You may hear people talk about public health schools and public health programs interchangeably, and that may be fine as you consider your right fit, however, there are important differences to be aware of.

Schools of public health generally have more than one public health degree program allowing for different specializations and public health is the explicit focus of the mission of the school. This means public health will be the focus of the school’s faculty and their research. Some universities offer excellent MPH programs that are part of a school of Medicine, Nursing, Health Sciences, or another related field. This may be a good fit for you if you are also interested in that larger topic or if other factors about the program align with your preferences and goals. 

Students should be aware that while the MPH is the most common graduate-level degree awarded by CEPH-accredited schools, it is not the only option2. Master of Health Administration (MHA) degrees focus on hospital and health system administration, health policy, and health service management. Master of Science (MS) and similar degrees such as Master of Health Science (MHS) tend to focus more on academic and research skills and are often for students pursuing research careers or who envision themselves continuing their education into a doctorate or other professional programs.

Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) degrees are offered at several public health schools and can be similar to traditional MPH programs, but similar to MS degrees, may have more of a research focus.

Criteria to Consider in Choosing an MPH Program

With over 141 MPH programs in the United States, there is a program for every future public health professional3. Public health programs should be accredited by the Council for Education for Public Health (CEPH), an independent agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit public health schools and programs. Attending a CEPH-accredited school will mean you are getting an education that meets or exceeds established quality standards. As public health is a growing field, many schools are adding new programs that are applying for CEPH accreditation.

Programs seeking CEPH accreditation are also generally following the same quality standards, however, they have not existed long enough to qualify for full accreditation. The Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) represents CEPH-accredited schools and schools in applicant status for CEPH accreditation and has its own search tool to allow you to ensure the programs you are applying to are meeting established industry standards.

MPH Topic Areas

A master of public health degree can incorporate a wide variety of topic areas and prepare graduates for work in fields across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, in local communities, at the state and national level, and around the world. While accredited programs have basic curriculum requirements for accreditation, the way those requirements are implemented, and the rest of the curriculum for students can vary widely. For example, the median number of required classes across MPH programs is 7, but that can vary from 5 to over 155.

With a field as wide as public health, not all MPH programs can specialize in every possible public health domain. Prospective students should look at program offerings closely to make sure that their preferred subject is offered. About one-third of MPH programs are single-concentration programs, meaning there is one curriculum provided to all students. The majority of these programs are generalist degrees, meaning they expose students to the field of public health as a whole without diving deep in one particular topic, however, some single-concentration programs focus on topics such as Social and Behavioral Sciences or Health Equity5

Schools of public health with multiple programs allow students to choose from a selection of specializations, which can vary widely and allow students to take courses in the fields they are most passionate about. Keep in mind, there is not a single concentration that makes an MPH better than another. Some highly ranked and regarded programs don’t have specializations in mental health for example, and schools with very well-respected biostatistics programs may not offer coursework in global health.

For example, the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health has thirteen concentrations prospective students apply to as part of their application such as Health Policy, Global Health, Health Behavior, Applied Epidemiology, and Environmental Health Solutions. Meanwhile, students at Tulane can pursue an MPH in Disaster Management, Health Systems Management, or Occupational Health and Safety Management. 

Specializations and Concentrations

Even schools that offer studies in the same subject area, may have different structures or course offerings that create different student experiences. Students should check degree requirements, core curricula, course listings, and faculty directories to get a sense of the focus of the school and if they will be satisfied with the academic and professional development offerings. 

Some programs also offer concentrations and/or graduate certificates to allow students to further specialize in their chosen field of study. These can be free-standing programs that students apply for and enroll in completely separate from an MPH, or akin to a “minor” in undergraduate studies where students fulfill requirements as part of their master’s program. Pitt Public Health and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health are both examples of MPH programs that offer graduate certificates to allow students to further concentrate in a subject area of their choosing or broaden their chosen degree.

Finally, many MPH programs can be completed as part of a dual degree alongside another credential. Increasingly, universities are offering 4+1 degrees where a student earns a bachelor’s degree and an MPH in 5 years either at one university (such as programs at the University of Virginia and Liberty University), or in a partnership between two universities (such as Vassar and Columbia). For students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree, there are many possible graduate degrees to combine with an MPH.

For example, medical students may enroll in an MD/MPH program, however, there are also JD/MPH degrees, MBA/MPH programs, and MPH/MSW to name just a few. The exact structure and focus of these programs can vary by institution and usually lead to both degrees being completed on an accelerated time frame compared to the time it would take to pursue them individually.

Cost and Affordability of MPH programs

Earning an MPH is an investment of both time and money that should not be taken lightly. The cost of an MPH program can vary by location, between public and private universities, and across online and in-person modalities. Public universities generally have lower tuition rates for in-state residents, however some grant graduate students residency upon enrollment, allowing students to benefit from these lower rates. You can check the websites of individual programs and schools to get an estimate of the cost of enrollment. 

As a way to defer costs, you should also make sure they are taking advantage of any scholarship opportunities that are available. Some schools and programs provide need- and merit-based scholarships to students to lower their cost of attendance. Need-based aid is usually determined by a student’s financial situation as reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) while merit aid can be based on a variety of factors such as a student’s undergraduate record, previous experiences, or areas of interest.

However, some schools have policies that only grant even merit aid to students who have completed the FAFSA, so students should complete it regardless of whether they think they qualify for need-based aid. While at some schools students are automatically considered for institutional aid, in some cases there is a separate application needed. Students should read information about scholarships and financial aid carefully to ensure they don’t miss any opportunities to decrease the cost of their degree.

Work-study and other financial arrangements with the school may also be available. Federal work-study provides part-time jobs for students with financial need and is awarded based on the FAFSA; however, some schools operate programs of their own outside the federal program or just provide opportunities for students to work for the program through teaching and/or research assistantships. Students who act as a teaching assistant generally support professors through grading, administrative support, and leading discussion sections or hosting office hours.

Research assistantships allow students to work with a faculty member on a research project. Still, other programs facilitate formal work partnership programs outside the university. For example, Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health operated Rollins Earn and Learn which provides financial support with applied work experience. 

There are also non-institutional sources of aid. Non-profit organizations and foundations may offer scholarships for postgraduate study for students attending any accredited institution. External scholarships generally focus their funding on specific population groups such as first-generation, residents of certain countries and states, or military and military-related, or specific areas of study. ASPPH’s This is Public Health website provides information on financing a public health degree with external sources and provides tips for applications. Similarly, Johns Hopkins University publishes a list of external scholarships that may be applicable to prospective MPH students at any institution.

Where Can I Get a Job? MPH programs with the best hire rates

In most cases, the ultimate goal in pursuing a master’s degree is to be able to increase employability in your public health field of interest and put your new skills and knowledge to use. MPH programs know that this is important to their students and often emphasize real-world skills and may even have dedicated career centers and coaches to help students and alumni find jobs as graduation nears and even years into the future. 

Many top schools of public health have dedicated career centers with counselors and job boards specifically for public health professionals for students and alumni. Schools may also have alumni networks to tap into for networking and professional connections. 

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Career Services reports that about 97% of public health students (including MS and PhD) from the Class of 2020 were employed or furthering their education six months after graduation. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports 84% of their 2020 graduates as employed or continuing their education, however, 10% of students had an unknown status. Similarly, NYU School of Global Public Health reports that only 4% of students graduating in 2017 were seeking employment 11 months after graduation. 89% of public health graduates from George Washington University’s MPH program and George Mason (both undergraduate and graduate) from 2019-2020 found work in a field related to their career goals.

Lifestyle Factors

Student experience is often overlooked when considering a graduate program but plays a large part in getting your degree. Do you want to study at a program close to where you currently live or maybe in a city where you hope to find a job post-graduation? Going to a large national university may provide name recognition but could have larger class sizes and a less personal experience than a regional university. Location matters too. Big cities may have more opportunities for internships and employment, but also be a financial burden while paying back tuition. 

The length of a program is also an important factor in the student experience. The average MPH program is two years or four semesters and a practicum experience. However, some schools offer accelerated programs either for certain student populations, such as Columbia’s accelerated MPH program for professionals, or UC Davis which is a 10-12 month program for all of their students. Having a shorter program allows students to enter the workforce faster, however, it may mean less time to specialize or build relationships with classmates and professors.

Size Matters

The size of your cohort of classmates can also impact your MPH experience. UC Davis keeps cohorts to 40 students or fewer while the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins University has about 260 students in each MPH cohort. However, even among larger programs, there may be specific departments or concentrations that vary in size. If having a close relationship with professors and fewer lecture-based classes, a low faculty-to-student ratio may be an important factor to consider. Many programs have established student groups that provide an opportunity to network, build skills, and give back to their communities around issues and topic areas that are important to them. 

Speaking with current students is the best way to get a sense of the student experience at a particular program. Many schools have open houses, accepted student days, or offer tours to give prospective students a feel for life as a student.

Online MPH programs versus in-person MPH programs

Many established and respected schools of public health such as Tulane and George Washington University have begun adding online MPH programs to their offerings. These programs can be great options for working professionals looking to add a credential on a flexible schedule or with a school they are not geographically close to. However, the curricula and course offerings may differ between online and residential programs, even those offered by the same school. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill offers four concentrations for their online MPH@UNC, while students attending the residential MPH have the choice of thirteen concentrations. 

Students should keep in mind that the online student experience will be different than attending class in person and they may need to put in more effort to make connections with faculty and other students. It also takes more self-discipline to attend class online and complete assignments at your own pace. Online programs are not for everyone, but for self-motivated working professionals, an online MPH program might be their best fit. Still, other programs, like the University of San Francisco offer hybrid approaches for students who want a bit of both. 

Where to find the best MPH Program

As you can see, the best MPH program for you depends on how you prioritize the most important elements of the graduate school process and experience. According to the U.S. News & World Report, the best MPH program is at Johns Hopkins University. Harvard University, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, Columbia University, and Emory University round out the top five according to their survey.

The highest-ranked private schools of public health are Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Columbia University, Emory University, and Boston University.

The highest-ranked public schools of public health are University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, University of California Berkeley, University of Washington, and University of California Los Angeles.

However, as we’ve discussed, these programs may not be the best fit for you and what you are looking for in your MPH. The ASPPH search tool will allow you to search for accredited or seeking accreditation schools by degrees offered, areas of study, location, delivery method, and GRE requirements. 

How much you can earn with an MPH degree

After you’ve done all the work to find MPH programs, apply, and choose the best fit for you, you would naturally expect a return on your investment. With public health careers spanning so many industries and job roles, it can be hard to get an accurate picture of how much you can expect to earn once you complete your degree. Krasna et al noted in their 2019 article that while about 20% of public health graduates find employment in a government role, the share of graduates working at for-profit organizations may be increasing6. As you look at salary numbers, it’s important to remember that public health professionals may enter the field with a variety of prior degrees and previous experience that may impact their salary. The cost of living in different parts of the United States will also impact salary. 

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Career Services reports the median salary of masters students sixth months after graduation was $72,250 and ranged from a low of $34,000 to a high of $165,000 for students with no prior graduate degree. The median salary among graduates of George Washington University’s MPH program was $60,000. The University of Michigan School of Public Health releases Outcome Reports with employment and salary trends of their graduates one year after graduation by department, allowing for a closer look at applicable salaries, job titles, and prospective employers.

Prospective students should see if their top schools have this information published, or if it can be provided to get a sense of the value of their degree.

What does this all mean?

There's no single best MPH program for every student, but there is a best one for you. The best MPH programs align with personal needs, provide a strong return on investment, and support their students in achieving their educational and career goals.

About the Authors

Written by:

Editorial Contributor

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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