Public health majors grow by more than 1,000 percent

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

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

“I was very interested in the research aspect and how broad the field of public health is,” recalls Edson, who will graduate with a BS in public health in 2022. desk or a mix of both.”

Edson was 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 a bachelor’s degree in public health increased more than 1,100 percent between 2001 and 2020, surpassing the master’s degree as the most popular public health degree in 2020. The increase comes from a combination of new undergraduate students. health programs in the US and growth in existing ones.

The study – the first to analyze the popularity of undergraduate public health majors, the demographics of the program and the careers that graduates pursue – reflects the growing interest in public health driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only underscores its importance. jobs but also need more public health professionals in times 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 do in the field.

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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 of health communication and policy, which she had never considered before.

After her high school death in 2020, “I started following all the news,” she recalls. “With the amount of information around and a lot of misinformation and a lot of confusion and all the policies that come out of it, it really opened my eyes to what policy is and how to make policy.”

Ruby HN Nguyen, one of the study’s authors and director of the University of Minnesota’s new undergraduate public health program, which will open this fall, said one factor driving the surge is a new awareness among young people of the systemic health disparities that affect them. everyday society.

“You’ve only recently realized that there are fields that lack premed or lack nursing or lack prepharmacy … focusing on the systemic and structural reasons for health,” he said. “Students are very aware of health disparities and want to fix those disparities.”

Career Path

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

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

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

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

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

“The idea in undergraduate public health is that there will be students who study public health as a major but will not work in public health,” he said. “But there is a great benefit to society if there are people in all sectors who have knowledge and training in public health.”

That’s because health plays a role in the operation of almost every business and industry; Airlines, for example, must consider public health when thinking about the safety of passengers and the environmental impact of their flights.

Despite the increase in public health education, few standards are uniform for these programs. The most comprehensive guidelines are provided by the Council on Education for Public Health, accrediting public health programs. CEPH generally accredits all schools of public health, but it has also accredited 26 independent baccalaureate programs that are not related to master’s programs. But it is only a small part of the total.

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

“In recent years, there have been faculty advertisements for program leaders for undergraduate programs [that] determine the ranks as assistant professor, instructor, and lecturer rank, often as non-tenured track positions,” he wrote in an email. “This shows that new programs can be started with less resources than undergraduate programs associated with accredited graduate degrees. “

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

“It’s important to us that our students reflect the community at large,” Burke said. “We are better public health practitioners if we represent the community, so I think this has been taken seriously as a discipline in recent history.”

Unique Challenges

Developing an undergraduate public health program has presented several challenges, including concerns that it will overlap too much with existing graduate programs, discourage students from pursuing bachelor’s degrees and reduce existing master’s degrees.

Some also expressed concern that bachelor’s degree holders would harm the public health labor market, but those fears have not been borne out, according to the latest research that describes the different career paths of bachelor’s and graduate degree holders. Undergraduate programs also tend to be more general than graduate programs, which are often concentrated in areas of study like epidemiology or health policy, according to Burke.

Edson, a recent graduate from Utah, currently works in local government as a public health educator. The job, which combines field and office work, perfectly embodies the flexibility and variety he wanted when he decided to study public health. Although he is fortunate enough to find work and enjoys doing important work in his community, he notes that some employers are not open to taking a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s true that many employers are very unprepared for graduate-level public health professionals,” he said. “It seems the trend is to hire master’s degree professionals, which is understandable, but I think a bachelor’s degree public health professional is better able to perform the core competencies that are asked of the job.”


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