A Graduate Degree in Public Policy Is Not Worth Your Time or Money


Many millenials grew up believing in the equation of education: school + college graduate education = a good life.

Unfortunately, the calculation is unraveling, especially for those pursuing graduate programs in public policy. The ROI – or return on investment – may not be worth the two years, the $30,000 of student debt, and effort that countless students put towards their education each year. Here are some reasons:

First, a master’s degree in public administration, public policy, international affairs (and related degrees) does not guarantee anyone a job in public service, which is the number one reason why many of the 27,500 students across the country enroll in public policy schools. Even the Presidential Management Fellowship, the largest feeder program for the government, accepts only 10% of applicants. Their encouragement of applicants from all types of graduate programs reflects the reality that amidst widespread hiring freezes, the government is mainly just looking for people with skills in specialized areas, such as medical and public health, security and protection, and compliance and enforcement.

Second, the skills needed for public service can be learned through other specialized programs, such as a JD or MBA, whose average starting salary for graduates is much higher (which makes it easier to pay off student debt). Writing, policy analysis, and public administration are courses than can be picked up through other degree programs that offer core functional expertise in business or law – fields that have better hiring rates and salaries. Even GoPublicService.org (a website sponsored by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration) has trouble credibly explaining why a student should enter an MPA or MPP program; their top 10 reasons list includes unsubstantiated claims that a public policy better equips students than an MBA or JD in the areas of teamwork, communication, and leadership — a claim I am sure several schools would quickly reject.

Third, just check out job aggregator website Indeed.com to see that the job market increasingly looks for people with depth over breadth. As MPP graduate Michelle Rhee attests here, a master’s in Public Policy offers a broad base of skills, including economics, statistics, and writing. However, to articulate a value proposition to potential employers, a graduate may be equally or better served in a) pursuing a specialized humanities program like a master’s in Middle Eastern Affairs; or b) working within the sector that they want to demonstrate expertise in (for ex: in schools or in Congress). These differentiating factors make it easier for employers who are sifting through the thousands of public policy résumés to identify an applicant’s competitive advantage. My own experience after being hired at the State Department is that my research and work in Morocco and Syria – not my education policy degree from Harvard – is what secured me a job working on the Middle East. Now that I have left the State Department and am moving back towards education, employers are more concerned with my field experience in education than my policy degree.

Lastly, while pedigree matters, public policy programs are less able to compete in the “name game” quandary as business or law schools. With Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School as a notable exceptions, other public policy programs, such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, are often eclipsed by their sister programs in law or business. While a student might be dishing out more tuition for a policy program at top-named school, the pay off may not be as much as expected.

In sum, the return on investment of a public policy degree is weak. Some may claim that education is not just about employability, but for the 55% of the graduate student population who take out student loans to support their studies, I am betting they are at least marginally concerned about making the right decision for their professional future. 

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