Undergraduate Public Health Degrees Rise in Popularity but Employment in Government Workforce Lags

By 2020, undergraduates with public health degrees outpaced those obtaining master’s public health degrees yet of these undergraduates then entering the workforce, only 8% chose government positions. A new study from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explores why this is as well as trends in public health undergraduate education from 2001-2020.

The objective of the study, Trends in Degree Conferrals, Degree-Associated Debt, and Employment Outcomes Among Undergraduate Public Health Degree Graduates, 2001‒2020, published in the American Public Health Association’s the American Journal of Public Health, was to understand the trends in degree conferrals, degree-associated debt, and employment outcomes among undergraduate public health degree (UGPHD) graduates.

As of 2020, more than 18,000 UGPHDs were awarded each year, totaling over 140,000 in the past 20 years. UGPHD graduates are diverse, with more than 80% being women and 55% being individuals from communities of color. The report’s findings indicate that alumni mostly worked in for-profit organizations (34%), healthcare (28%), non-profits (11%), academic organizations (10%), government (10%), and other (6%). Degree-associated debt was $24,000, and the median first-year earnings were $34,000.

The growth in UGPHD conferrals has slowed since 2020, but it remains one of the fastest-growing degrees in the nation. However, limited pathways into government employment remain a significant challenge.

“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,” said Dr. Laura Magaña, ASPPH President and CEO.

How can government public health roles be made more appealing to UGPHD graduates?

Research from the de Beaumont Foundation and the Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI) suggests that at least 80,000 more full-time equivalent (FTE) public health employees are needed at the state and local level. To help address this, the report suggests that educational institutions and governmental public health agencies need to initiate stronger partnerships and better methods for attracting UGPHD graduates to government employment opportunities.

As Richard K. Riegelman, MD, PhD, MPH, Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, states in his Two Decades of Progress in Undergraduate Public Health: Where Do We Go From Here? commentary on the report, “Key to the entry of undergraduate public health majors into the governmental public health workforce is the opportunity to gain experience in public health departments. In the past, these opportunities have been limited and often reserved for MPH students.”

ASPPH’s Undergraduate Network

ASPPH has long understood the need for lifelong learning in public health and established the Undergraduate Network for Education in Public Health in 2011, which now includes more than 200 member institutions. ASPPH also sponsors an annual undergraduate public health conference that is open to network members as well as nonmembers.