person smiling after graduation

New study finds dramatic growth in undergraduate public health degree conferrals over the past two decades

Recipients of undergraduate degrees in public health are highly diverse, with more than 80 percent being women and 55 percent from communities of color.

Virgil McDill | December 15, 2022

A new study from the University of Minnesota’s (U of M) School of Public Health (SPH), Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH),  and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) explores trends in public health undergraduate education over the past 20 years, finding that between 2001 and 2020, undergraduate public health degree conferrals grew 13.4% per year — a remarkable rate of growth that by 2020 allowed the undergraduate degree to overtake the master’s degree as the most conferred public health degree type in the U.S.

The study appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

In 2001, colleges and universities across the U.S. awarded 1,480 undergraduate degrees in public health (UGPHD). By 2020, the number of undergraduate degrees climbed to 18,289, a two-decade increase of over 1100%.

“The rapid growth in undergraduate public health degree conferrals began in the early 2000s, fueled in part by the rise in bioterrorism concerns and interest in strengthening the nation’s public health system in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks,” said Dr. Laura Magaña, ASPPH President and CEO. “While we’re thrilled by the increased interest in undergraduate education for public health and what this means for all sectors of the American workforce, we must continue to explore why relatively few are choosing employment in the governmental public health workforce.”

The study found that UGPHD recipients are more ethnically and racially diverse than typical recipients of undergraduate degrees nationwide. In 2020, 55% of UGPHD graduates were from communities of color, while more than 80% were women. In addition, the researchers found:

jp leider
Lead author JP Leider
  • By 2020, undergraduate public health degrees outpaced master’s degree conferrals (18,289 to 18,044).
  • Undergraduate degree conferrals have been driven both by growth within existing degree programs and by new entrants into the marketplace. In 2016, about 271 institutions offered UGPHDs, up from 179 in 2012. The number of institutions awarding solely UGPHDs with no graduate public health degrees has also increased substantially, from 44 in 2001 to 183 in 2020.
  • Degree associated debt varied according to the type of institution, with the highest debt load at for-profit institutions (median $39,800), followed by not-for-profit institutions (median $26,000), and public institutions (median $22,000).
  • The majority of recent UGPHD recipients were either employed or had a fellowship or a volunteer position, while 31% were pursuing further study.
  • Of those UGPHD recipients who were employed, 34% worked in for-profit organizations, 28% in health care organizations, 11% in academic institutions, and 10% in government.

Recent SPH research has shown that the number of people working in our nation’s public health sector is woefully inadequate to meet our basic public health needs. Previous research highlighted a need for new workers – at least 80,000 more full time equivalent (FTE) employees at the state and local level.

“The explosive growth in undergraduate public health degrees could have huge implications for the nation’s public health workforce, which has been declining for several years and was substantially depleted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said JP Leider, lead author and director of the Center for Public Health Systems at SPH. “Increasing the number of people with undergraduate public health degrees could directly impact the ability to diversify the public health workforce, establish pathways for training and ultimately rebuild the governmental public health workforce with new UGPHD graduates. But only if we can convince new graduates to join the workforce, and stay in it.”

To help address this challenge, the researchers suggest that educational institutions and governmental public health agencies should initiate stronger partnerships and better methods for attracting PHUGD recipients to public sector employment opportunities.

© 2015 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy Statement