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A college student receives a COVID-19 test. The pandemic seems to have inspired more undergrads to study public health.

Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Tabitha Edson always knew she wanted to work in health sciences. She earned a nursing assistant certification in high school but decided not to pursue the field at Westminster College, a small private institution in Salt Lake City; she worried that it would limit her job opportunities when she graduated.

Instead, she found herself drawn to public health, inspired by an introductory course in the subject required for both public health and nursing majors.

“I was very interested in the research aspect and just how broad the field of public health was,” recalled Edson, who graduated with a B.S. in public health in 2022. “It was something where I could see myself working in the field or behind a desk or a mix of both.”

Edson is hardly alone. The number of undergraduate public health majors has skyrocketed over the past two decades, according to new research from the University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins University and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health that analyzed three different data sets.

According to the study, the number of graduates with an undergraduate degree in public health jumped by more than 1,100 percent between 2001 and 2020, outpacing master’s degrees as the most popular public health degree by 2020. The increase comes from a combination of new undergraduate public health programs in the U.S. and growth in existing ones.

The study—the first to analyze the popularity of undergraduate public health majors, the demographics of those programs and the careers their graduates pursue—reflects the mounting interest in public health fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which underscored not only the vital importance of the work but also the dire need for more public health professionals in a time of crisis.

Why Public Health?

The World Health Organization defines public health as “all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole.” Researchers have observed anecdotally that emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic tend to make students more aware of what public health is and what professionals in the field do.

Amalya benEzra, a junior in Brandeis University’s Health: Science, Society, and Policy program, said she decided to study public health because the pandemic made her aware of the challenges in health communications and policy, which she hadn’t previously considered.

After her high school shut down in 2020, “I started following everything on the news,” she recalled. “With the amount of information going around and a lot of the misinformation and a lot of the confusion and all of the policies that came out of it, it just opened my eyes to what policy is and how we create policy.”

Ruby H. N. Nguyen, one of the study’s authors and the director of the University of Minnesota’s new undergraduate public health program, slated to open this fall, said one factor driving the surge is a newfound awareness among young people of the systemic health disparities that impact their communities day to day.

“It has only been more recently that they understood that there exists a field that is less premed or less nursing or less prepharmacy … focused on systemic and structural reasons for health,” she said. “Students are very aware of health disparities and want to ameliorate those disparities.”

Career Pathways

Public health undergraduates tend to follow different career pathways than their graduate counterparts, the research shows. Bachelor’s degree holders are most likely to work in the for-profit sector (34 percent of those working full-time) or in health care (28 percent), while 11 percent pursue careers in the nonprofit sector and 10 percent each work for an academic institution or the government.

Those who hold a master’s degree in public health are also more likely to work in the for-profit or health-care sectors than in government, but the gap is smaller, with a combined 41 percent working in health care or at a for-profit company and 17 percent working in government. The number of advanced degree holders working in government has also increased over the years.

According to JP Leider, the lead author of the study and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Public Health Systems, the purpose of public health degrees has changed significantly in the years since they were first introduced.

“Public health education started almost 80 years ago as something, at the master’s level, that was meant for people in government to help them train in technical spaces to help them do their jobs better,” he said.

Now the degree has many broader applications—some even outside health care. Emily Burke, senior director of workforce development and applied practice at ASPPH and another author of the study, said that focusing on public health at the undergraduate level is in some ways akin to pursuing the liberal arts.

“The idea in undergrad public health was that there are going to be students who study public health as a major but will not go on to work in public health,” she said. “But there’s great benefit to society if there are people in all sectors with knowledge and training in public health.”

That’s because health plays a role in the operations of virtually every business and industry; an airline, for example, must consider public health when thinking about passenger safety and the environmental impact of their planes.

Despite the rise in public health education, few uniform standards exist for such programs. The most comprehensive guidelines are provided by the Council on Education for Public Health, the accreditor for public health programs. CEPH largely accredits entire public health schools, but it has also accredited 26 stand-alone baccalaureate programs that are not affiliated with master’s programs. But that is only a small share of the total.

Joel Lee, a professor emeritus of health policy and management at the University of Georgia, said that the lack of uniform standards sometimes allows unaffiliated undergraduate programs to launch with a lack of resources.

“Over recent years there have been faculty advertisements for program leaders of new baccalaureate programs [that] specify rank as assistant professor, instructor, and lecturer ranks, frequently as non-tenure track positions,” he wrote in an email. “This suggests to me that new programs may be starting with less resources than an undergraduate program affiliated with an accredited graduate degree.”

Another key finding of the study is that undergraduate bachelor’s programs are quite diverse: 45 percent of public health bachelor’s degree holders are white, 17  percent are Hispanic or Latino, 15 percent are Black, 13 percent are Asian, 4 percent identify as multiple races, and 1 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native.

“It is important to us that our students reflect society at large,” Burke said. “We are better practitioners of public health if we represent our communities, so I think that’s something we’ve taken very seriously as a discipline in more recent history.”

Unique Challenges

Developing undergraduate public health programs has presented some challenges, including concerns that they will overlap too much with existing graduate programs, discouraging students from pursuing advanced degrees and devaluing existing master’s degrees.

Some have also expressed concern that bachelor’s degree holders will end up cannibalizing the public health job market, but those fears have not been realized, according to the latest research reflecting the different job paths of undergraduate and graduate degree holders. Undergraduate programs also tend to be more generalized than graduate programs, which often are concentrated on an area of study like epidemiology or health policy, according to Burke.

Edson, the recent graduate from Utah, now works in local government as a public health educator. The job, which combines fieldwork and office work, perfectly encapsulates the flexibility and variety she wanted when she decided to study public health. Though she was lucky enough to find a job and enjoys doing important work in her community, she noted that some employers don’t seem open to hiring bachelor’s degree holders.

“It’s interesting that a lot of employers don’t seem super prepared for bachelor’s-level public health professionals,” she said. “It seems the trend is to hire master’s degree professionals, which is totally understandable, but I think bachelor’s-level public health professionals are more than capable of performing the core competencies that are asked of them in those jobs.”

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