Online versus in-person master’s in public health programs: Here are the similarities and differences – Fortune

BY Sydney LakeApril 26, 2022, 1:41 PM

A pedestrian passes by on the University of Minnesota campus, as seen in April 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly expanded the ways in which we consume information—and a 2021 study indicates that students are more receptive to learning online. Last spring, education company Cengage released its Digital Learning Pulse Survey results, which showed that 73% of respondents would like to take fully online courses in the future.

Like many other degree programs, students looking to earn their master’s degree in public health (MPH) increasingly have the option to do so online. If you’re debating whether to earn your MPH online or in-person, there are several considerations to make—but ultimately the programs have more similarities than differences. 

“In fact, a fair number of our on-campus, more traditional students take the online version of a course if, say, they’ve got an internship down at the capitol or are working part-time and can’t make it back to campus for the campus version,” says Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, director of the University of Minnesota’s Public Health Administration and Policy (PHAP) program. “It’s a cross-fertilization—the relationships that form between the distance, or remote students, and the more traditional students.”

For candidates who are deciding whether to apply to in-person or online MPH programs, Fortune spoke with leaders at two schools that offer both options. The following are factors they say you should consider when making your decision. 

How the curriculum and classroom experience compare

At the University of North Carolina, both online and in-person MPH students take the exact same curriculum—but material is delivered using different teaching methodologies. The online program uses a “flipped classroom model,” Catherine Gihlstorf, associate director of the online MPH@UNC program, tells Fortune. 

“During the week, students have access and will work on asynchronous materials—recorded videos, group work, readings, other asynchronous assignments,” she says. “And then once a week, they’ll come together for a live session class.”

UNC also limits the size of its online courses to 16 students, whereas the in-person classes don’t have that small cap size. One major difference is concentrations. Students who attend the program in-person have more concentrations to select from—13 versus just four for online students. 

Admissions standards are identical but student profiles differ

At both the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, admissions standards for the online and in-person MPH programs are exactly the same, officials confirm.

“The admissions standards between online and residential are identical—the same high-quality standards and competitive standards for residential apply to our online program,” Gihlstorf says of UNC. 

That said, student backgrounds do vary between online and in-person programs. UNC’s online program allows students to complete the degree at their own pace. About 90% of online students work on the degree part-time. On the other hand, the residential program is a set two-year program. 

“If you’re looking at the demographics between the two formats, you’ll see that the online students skew a little older,” Gihlstorf adds. UNC’s online students typically come from one of four backgrounds: working in public health, but don’t have the MPH credential; working in health care, but want to have the public health perspective; using an MPH as preparation for medical school; and looking to make a career change.

UMN sees similar candidate backgrounds, but also has applicants who have just graduated from college and just started working, or were looking to minimize the cost of their degree by doing it online. Tuition is the same for both the in-person and online programs, and costs $1,034 per credit.

“People with a public health degree don’t make a heck of a lot of money compared to people, say, in engineering or medicine, and so it’s ideal if the cost of the degree is proportional to that earnings potential,” Wurtz says. “The cost efficacy of an online degree, I think, is higher than the traditional on-campus degree.”

How the MPH format affects career preparation

While an MPH degree can be completed online, Wurtz emphasizes that it’s still just as rigorous and challenging as an in-person program, therefore “not an automatic pilot degree.” 

Online students still have to make an effort to build their professional network, participate in classes, and meet other students and faculty. In a traditional in-person MPH program, you learn a lot about the public health in both the location of your school and your “applied experience”—think: internship, Wurtz says. 

“An important part of a quality online program is making sure that the people delivering the program are working with the student to help them optimize their opportunities in their own community,” she says. It’s important to be “able to identify applied practice experiences, [and help] the students connect with resources in their community.”

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

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