Public Policy Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Course Info

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What jobs can you get with a public policy bachelor's or associate's degree? Get the truth about requirements, online options and courses, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Public Policy: Degrees at a Glance

Is a government career what you hope for? Do you want to make a difference in your community? Then an undergraduate program in public policy could be an excellent choice. You will study the how's and why's of policy administration and analysis while studying government, economics and other social sciences. You may also engage in a real-world policy situation in an internship or practicum.

Many graduates work for local, state and federal government agencies. Others work at community, healthcare or political organizations, utilities, or for private government contractors and urban planning firms. A bachelor's degree in public policy is also good preparation for getting a law degree or a master's degree in public policy, which are often required for more senior positions. Will you earn less working for a non-profit? Do federal employees enjoy higher pay than private sector workers? These are common perceptions, but studies say whether these perceptions are accurate depends on many factors. So don't assume that paychecks are always smaller, or larger, in public policy jobs.

What is fairly clear is that employment prospects should be better in some areas than others. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that federal government employment will decline by 13% from 2010-2020, while state and local government employment (excluding education and hospitals) will increase by 7%. Employment in healthcare and social assistance will grow by a robust 33% from 2010-2020, the BLS forecasts.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in clerical or paraprofessional roles in government, community affairs and politics Individuals interested in careers in analysis and administration in government, community affairs and politics
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean salary) - Eligibility interviewer for government programs ($41,000)*
- Local government office worker ($36,000)*
- Political scientist ($105,000 - but many in this category hold graduate degrees)*
- Budget analyst ($71,000)*
- Social services manager ($63,000)*
Time to Completion Two years of full-time study Four years of full-time study
Common Graduation Requirements - Course work
- Internship or practicum (may be optional)
- Course work
- Internship or practicum
- Senior thesis or project (may be optional for obtaining honors)
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Online degrees and hybrid programs Online degrees and hybrid programs

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate's Degree in Public Policy

Associate's degree programs in public policy include both general education requirements and policy-oriented courses in politics, economics and social studies. Some programs include concentrations that students choose based on their own interests, such as environmental or public health policy. Programs may also have a singular focus, often reflecting their location. There are specialized programs in urban policy studies, homeland security and Native American affairs administration, for instance. Usually, you can apply credits from an associate's degree program to earning a bachelor's in public policy.

Pros and Cons


  • Can be earned in two years
  • Normally transferable to a bachelor's degree program
  • Exposes you to many areas of social science, which can be useful in other career fields or academic programs
  • Good preparation for careers that offer the satisfaction of helping communities and individuals


  • Many employers require at least a bachelor's degree for positions above the clerical or paraprofessional level
  • Limited availability of programs nationwide (in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education listed only 63 programs in 25 states offering associate's in public policy or administration, versus 269 bachelor's programs in 44 states)*
  • When considering career prospects, remember that economic downturns may be felt as keenly in the public and non-profit sectors as in the private sector

Source: *National Center for Education Statistics (June 2012 figures).

Courses and Requirements

Associate's degree programs typically require an introductory core course (or two) in public policy, courses covering the basics of political science and economics, as well as general education classes aimed at building writing and communication skills. Additional required or elective classes in psychology, math, history, urban environments, cultural studies and specific policy areas (such as healthcare, education or homeland security) generally round out the curriculum. An internship or practicum is a feature of many programs.

Examples of classes that you may take:

  • Urban development
  • Social psychology
  • Race, ethnicity and American culture
  • Environmental policy and politics
  • Legal issues in national security

Online Course Info

Associate's degrees in public policy or public administration can be earned entirely online or through a mix of online and on-campus courses. Online options generally have the same requirements and their courses cover the same areas as traditional degree programs. However, some programs that can be completed online warn that not all classes are available in online format each semester. So, online programs may be a bit less flexible when it comes to course selection.

Stand Out with this Degree

Work experience before graduation can be vital in getting your foot in the door of prospective employers. Volunteering is also a good way to demonstrate your commitment to a cause or issue. Some associate's degree programs include an internship or practicum, but others don't. When comparing programs, consider whether they include hands-on experience and how closely that experience matches your own aspirations. If there is no internship or practicum in the curriculum, you can research opportunities and apply on your own to volunteer or intern. Your academic department or your school's career services office are good places to seek initial advice.

If federal employment is your goal, look into the Pathways Program, which was designed to encourage students and recent graduates to consider federal employment via internships. The U.S. Office of Personal Management's Pathways website offers a one-stop source of information on internships and similar opportunities throughout the various federal agencies. If volunteering for a non-profit is more appealing, then visit the website of VolunteerMatch to browse opportunities nationwide.

Degree Alternatives

Your options and prospects for public policy careers can be limited with only an associate's degree. If obtaining a bachelor's degree is not a reasonable alternative, then perhaps pursing an associate's in paralegal studies may be a better choice. You can still work on behalf of your fellow citizens, but with the likelihood of higher earnings. Many paralegals have jobs at government agencies, while others work for non-profits and healthcare organizations, for instance. Entry-level paralegal positions are normally open to those with an associate's degree and no further education is needed to move up to greater responsibility and supervisory work. Paralegals earned an average salary of $50,000 in 2011 and their employment should grow by 18% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS.

Bachelor's Degree in Public Policy

Like associate's degree programs, bachelor's degree programs in public policy are interdisciplinary and many also have concentrations in particular areas. But over four years, students can explore the field in greater depth than in associate's degree programs. Whatever your specialized interests, you will learn generally about the tools and theories used to assess policies and how to practice decision-making and collaboration in various political and organizational contexts.

Pros and Cons


  • Qualifies you for a broad range of entry-level positions in government agencies, non-profit organizations and related firms
  • Many programs include an internship or other work experience that can help you land a first job
  • Multidisciplinary coursework provides a broad skill set transferable to other fields
  • Prepares you for careers where you can make a difference in your community or help your country


  • Higher-level administrative and analysis positions typically require a graduate degree
  • Public sector workers are better educated on average than workers in the private sector, which means your educational achievements may stand out less
  • Some jobs in the public sector are awarded based on political affiliations

Common Courses and Requirements

Bachelor's degree programs in public policy are comprised of an interdisciplinary mix of social sciences, plus general skill-building classes in such areas as writing and public speaking. Courses cover economics, math, law, government, organizational studies, ethics, psychology and social studies. Many programs also have specialized courses and concentrations. Environmental policy, healthcare and urban planning are popular tracks, but there are also offerings in such areas as real estate development, national security issues, transportation planning and international development. Many programs culminate in a capstone project and/or senior thesis in which students apply their knowledge to a real-world policy question or situation.

Examples of classes you may be able to choose from:

  • Personnel management in the public sector
  • Ethics and policy
  • Understanding leadership
  • Welfare policy
  • Planning and sustainability
  • Public services in cities

Online Degree & Course Info

You can complete a bachelor's degree in public policy entirely online, or earn your degree with a mix of online and classroom-based courses. Online and mixed programs generally include the same types of courses and requirements as those completed entirely on-campus. Some, but not all, online degree programs require capstone projects and provide specialization options.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

According to the BLS, networking and gaining experience as a volunteer or intern are especially important for landing policy-related jobs. An internship may be included in your degree program, but you can and should seek experience on your own. If you aspire to a political career, volunteer for a political campaign. If you want to work in policy analysis, seek an internship at your preferred agency or think tank. Join and network in a professional organization, such as the American Society for Public Administration.

If you are unsure what cause or area of policy interests you most, then try out some different options with short-term volunteer or intern positions at different agencies or organizations. If you already feel strongly committed to a particular policy specialty, then look for a longer-term placement to get you started on that path. Organizations like the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance and the International City/County Management Association, or your school's career services office, can help you identify current internship opportunities. For volunteering options, you can check the thousands of listings on VolunteerMatch's website.

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