December 1, 2023

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How the pandemic changed master’s degree programs in public health

BY Sam BeckerApril 21, 2022, 1:05 PM

People sit outside of the Malcolm A. Love Library on the campus of San Diego State University in San Diego, California, as seen in August 2020. (Photographer: Bing Guan—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immeasurable effect on just about everything, including higher education. Schools were forced to scramble and institute huge changes practically overnight, like shifting to a fully online learning model, while other changes were less consequential, such as canceling spring break. But there were some surprises, as well, as many schools were inundated with fresh applicants.

Aside from the death toll and long-term detrimental health issues, the pandemic has actually ushered in some positive changes for many master’s in public health (MPH) programs. Most notably, more students have expressed interest in the public health field, leading to an increase in applicants—and it’s happening at schools across the country.

Between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2021, universities saw a 40% increase in applicants for both undergraduate and graduate public health degree programs, according to the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health.

“The pandemic’s been a boon for public health programs in terms of visibility,” says Eyal Oren, the interim director for the School of Public Health at San Diego State University. “There’s more recognition about what public health professionals can do.”

Increased interest in MPH programs

At San Diego State, the master’s of public health program experienced a 23% increase in the number of applicants in 2020 compared to a pre-pandemic baseline, and Oren estimates that the school saw yet another 30% increase in applicants for the 2021 school year compared with 2020. “There was incredible interest” from students, he says.

Similar spikes are happening at MPH programs around the country. Brown University, for instance, had 437 applicants to its program in 2020, and that number had swelled to 948 in 2021, an increase of 116%.

For some programs, the interest is being driven by people from smaller or more rural communities in need of public health professionals who wish to gain a skill set to help. And in many cases, people are looking to cross over into the public health field from careers in different industries. 

For example, some teachers are looking to change career paths and transition to public health, says Kari-Lyn Sakuma, an associate professor at the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. “With current public health challenges today, we need more integration across disciplines,” she adds. And a teacher who has a tight relationship with a small community could make a big difference once paired with a new skill set stemming from an MPH program.

COVID-19: A real-time case study

Another way that the pandemic has changed MPH programs, both in terms of how programs are run and taught, is that it has provided students and educators with a life-size, real-time case study. There are a myriad of learning opportunities resulting from the pandemic, including lessons about how the virus spreads, along with the responses from governments, the public, and the medical community at large.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Oren says that prior health crises—such as the Zika Virus, SARS, and the 1918 influenza—were the best examples to use when discussing outbreaks in a classroom. That’s since changed because the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic dwarfs both the Zika and SARS outbreaks, and is more relevant than the 1918 pandemic—the next closest in size—which occurred when our pharmaceutical and medical knowledge and technology was worlds apart from where it is now. 

As a result, students can learn about a public health crisis that they, too, experienced. And access to real-time statistics and information has been a game-changer for MPH programs, Oren says. 

“It’s allowed us to engage in case-based teaching, and look at real-life data in a real-life pandemic,” Oren says. “We’re also able to use publicly available information [such as that from the CDC], and analyze data remotely.” 

And the pandemic was less of a shock to public health programs on campuses. “Public health has been prepared for this moment,” adds Sakuma, who says that both the opportunity to discuss the pandemic as it was happening, and seeing how the public reacted, have provided students with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to learn.

As far as how MPH programs have adapted to teaching during the pandemic, it differs from school to school. At Oregon State, Sakuma says the curriculum hasn’t really changed at all. “I don’t think anything has changed other than being able to talk about things in real-time,” she says.

Meanwhile, students and faculty at SDSU had to undergo a quick shift to remote learning, but Oren says it was a change that was already underway, and was merely sped up by the pandemic. He says that faculty had a lot of support from the university, too, which really helped keep students and faculty on the same page.

“At SDSU, there has been strong support for faculty to get up to speed,” he says, in terms of adapting to new technology and learning methods. Despite some bumps in the road, he says, “it was well-run.”

Uncertainty in the job market for public health grads

Like many, if not most other master’s degree tracks, MPH programs had to bob and weave in order to deal with the pandemic. But the big differentiator for public health programs was the endless supply of new learning material and data to analyze right before students’ eyes.

It’s unclear, yet, however, just how the pandemic will affect the job market for graduates of public health programs. While there may be a boost in funding for public health programs around the country in the wake of the pandemic, many of those same programs have seen a loss in funding and manpower in recent years.

Since 2010, per capita spending for state public health departments has declined by 16%, according to an analysis by the Associated Press and Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s led to a loss of 38,000 jobs since 2008. The pandemic seemingly reversed that, spurred on by health workers who have quit their jobs in droves — nearly 20% of them quit during the pandemic, according to an October 2021 analysis from Morning Consult.

Such disruptions in the job market may open doors for plucky MPH grads. There has been a spike in the number of open jobs for those people in the public health field, according to a recent study published in The International Journal of Health Planning and Management.

While the job market will sort itself out in the coming years, MPH programs themselves are simultaneously focused on keeping students and faculty safe and healthy, and incorporating a smorgasbord of new data and case studies into their curriculum. It’s a double-edged sword for current MPH students, who have had to contend with the hardships the pandemic has presented, but also with the first-hand experience of living through it that may help them hone their skills and judgment before hitting the job market.

And when trying to size up how SDSU handled the pandemic, Oren says that he thinks it went fairly well, all things considered.

“It took a little bit of time to get a handle on everything in March 2020,” he says, “but I think we did really well.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programs, business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.