5 Best Online Public Policy Doctorates

public policy

Do you strongly desire to contribute to making a positive change in the world? Do you see yourself doing so through policymaking? Then, an online doctorate in public policy could be a great fit!

Finding the program that best fits your needs can be difficult, though. This ranking highlights five excellent options to consider for advancing your education and doing so online.

Public policy doctorates are designed to help you obtain the abilities necessary to address society’s most serious problems, from hunger and violence to urban planning and environmental protection. Most online doctorates in public policy are suited for seasoned professionals at the forefront of policy studies. They are designed to provide an unmatched learning experience with a personalized and flexible learning style.

The flexibility of online learning is what makes these programs so popular. You can work toward your degree at a more moderate pace, allowing you to continue working in your current job. Many online doctorates in public policy don’t require residencies, either, so you likely won’t have to worry about campus visits. But that’s just part of what makes the programs in this ranking among the best.

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Methodology for Ranking the Best Online Public Policy Doctorates

Choosing a university to get your education requires a methodical and thorough approach. To help you narrow down your choices, we’ve ranked the best online doctorates in public policy using the following criteria:

  • The program has fully or partially online courses to cater to the unique schedules of working adult students.
  • The program offers a rigorous curriculum that encourages the most effective research methods in public policy, aiming to identify and address critical issues to drive the discipline forward.
  • The doctorate in public policy program’s faculty consists of distinguished public policy professionals and authoritative figures in the industry.
  • The program requires you to focus on research and fieldwork, allowing you to apply qualitative and quantitative research methods.
  • The program has received full accreditation from regional accrediting agencies, ensuring that the doctorate will be highly valued in the workplace.

Please read our methodology for in-depth information on our ranking process.

Top 5 Grad Schools with Online Doctorate in Public Policy

A Ph.D. is both an academic and professional degree the prepares you to become a specialist in studying, developing, and assessing policies that address with complex societal issues. It is a terminal degree program, meaning it’s the highest degree offered in the field.

The curriculum of these programs often incorporates several disciplines, including political science, economics, sociology, law, and management. When you complete your program, you will have a well-formed toolkit you can use to be a highly effective member of the public policy community.

Liberty University

Liberty University

Liberty University offers a Ph.D. in Public Policy program designed to help you obtain the necessary skills and knowledge to address challenging social issues at the local, national, and international levels.

Prominent Program Features:

This 60-credit hour doctoral program can be completed 100% online in 3 years through accelerated 8-week courses. The pubic policy curriculum is designed to give you a comprehensive understanding of public policy challenges from various angles, enabling you to develop original and fact-based solutions.

Once enrolled in the online Ph.D. in Public Policy at Liberty, you can pursue a general track or select from a number of other concentrations:

  • Chinese Affairs
  • Economic Policy
  • Education Policy
  • Foreign Policy
  • National Security Policy
  • Social Policy

Each concentration has its own specific set of courses. However, the program’s core courses include Foundations of Public Policy, Founding Era and the Constitution, and Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations, among others.

If you’re a domestic student, you must have a master’s degree from a regionally approved institution with a 3.0 or higher GPA to apply. If you’re an international student, you must show proof of English proficiency, such as TOEFL or IELTS scores. Additional requirements include an admission application, application fee, and official college transcripts.

DegreePh.D. in Public Policy
Completion3 years
AccreditationSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Program Pros:

  • Completely online
  • Accelerated eight-week courses
  • Transfer up to 50 percent of required credits
  • Multiple specialization options

Program Cons:

  • More expensive than other options

Tennessee State University

Tennessee State University

The Ph.D. in Public Policy and Public Administration at Tennessee State University is the only such program in the state. The program will train you to be an influential leader and scholar in public policy and governance and do so in a completely online format to provide you with the most flexibility for completing your degree.

Prominent Program Features:

The program’s curriculum covers a wide range of subjects in public policy, government, and public administration. It places a strong emphasis on research as well – you can work on innovative research projects with renowned faculty members that expand your understanding of public policy and administration.

The curriculum allows you to focus on particular public policy and administration areas. This helps you design a program that closely aligns with your professional goals. Moreover, the program’s interdisciplinary approach allows you to draw from many disciplines to address challenging societal issues. For example, you can concentrate your studies on healthcare policy, education policy, or urban development, to name a few.

In addition to coursework, you can get real-world experience by participating in an internship or an experiential learning program. Hands-on experience is invaluable in this field, and gaining that experience while still in the program will help you synthesize what you’ve learned and develop an improved understanding of how to apply that knowledge in a real-world setting.

To apply, you must have a Master’s in Public Administration degree or a related field that offers courses in public administration. Additional requirements include the following:

  • Submit GRE scores
  • Submit official transcripts showing a 3.25 or higher GPA on all graduate-level coursework
  • Provide three letters of recommendation
  • Provide a writing sample
  • Submit a single-author academic or professional writing
DegreePh.D. in Public Policy and Administration
Completion4 years
AccreditationSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Program Pros:

  • Completely online
  • The program is preparatory for careers in numerous fields, including academia, research, and management
  • There are many opportunities for scholarly inquiry outside of coursework
  • The university’s eRate lowers the cost of tuition for out-of-state students

Program Cons:

  • You’re limited to taking four classes per year (but you can apply for a waiver to increase your course load)
  • You’re limited to six transfer credits

Old Dominion University

Old Dominion University

The Ph.D. in Public Policy from Old Dominion takes a multidisciplinary approach. You’ll gain knowledge and skills applicable to fields ranging from public service to nonprofit work to community organization, and more. Likewise, you’ll study critical public policy theories and explore public administration issues as well.

Prominent Program Features:

This program requires 49 credits to graduate. This includes 37 credits of coursework and 12 credits dedicated to dissertation research and defense. The coursework explores many different areas of public policy, including the following:

  • Nonprofit and public management
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Public procurement and contract management
  • Citizen participation
  • Dispute resolution
  • Economic development

The online courses are synchronous, so you will participate in live class sessions that occur at regularly scheduled times. You will have round-the-clock access to course materials and resources, though.

You must meet the following criteria to apply:

  • Have a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • Have a 3.25 GPA or higher for all graduate work
  • Submit two academic letters of recommendation
  • Provide a professional resume
  • Provide a 3-6 page essay expounding on your academic and professional goals
  • Submit GRE or GMAT scores at the 25h percentile or above for the verbal and quantitative components
DegreePh.D. in Public Administration and Policy
Completion3 years
AccreditationSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Program Pros:

  • Completely online
  • Live synchronous courses closely replicate the on-campus class experience
  • No requirement for a public policy-related master’s degree
  • The program is preparatory for careers in numerous fields, including education, criminal justice, and political science

Program Cons:

  • More expensive than other options
  • No specialization opportunities

Walden University

Walden University

Walden University is known for offering a robust online learning experience. Its online Ph.D. in public policy is designed to prepare graduate-level professionals like you for leadership roles in government agencies, public and nonprofit organizations, and academia, among others.

Prominent Program Features:

This program promotes international collaboration and understanding by encouraging you to examine public policy issues from a global viewpoint. You’ll examine critical issues like healthcare, its rising costs, and barriers to access for some populations.

You’ll gain relevant skills in public policy, from improved decision-making and critical-thinking skills to leadership skills to expertise in organizational change, research, and governance. You’ll gain these skills in a curriculum that includes courses such as:

  • Ethics and Social Justice
  • Leadership and Organizational Change
  • Finance and Budgeting for the Public Sector
  • Intellectual Traditions and Theoretical Foundations of Public Policy and Administration
  • Governance and Public Policy

You will also participate in four residencies that expand upon your learning. These residencies can be completed online or in person. A dissertation is also required in which you advance the practice of public administration or public policy.

To apply, you must have a master’s degree or higher and submit official transcripts.

DegreePh.D. in Public Policy and Administration
Completion4 years
AccreditationHigher Learning Commission

Program Pros:

  • Completely online
  • Unique residencies offer advanced learning opportunities
  • Ample academic and research support

Program Cons:

  • No specialization opportunities (several are offered but are currently closed)

Union Institute and University

Union Institute and University

The public policy Ph.D. at Union has a strong justice and community involvement focus. In fact, the degree includes dual studies in public policy and social change. This focus on social justice and diversity isn’t just here at home; the program seeks to help you explore the interdependence of societies across the globe.

Prominent Program Features:

As a student in this program, you are urged to confront inequality, discrimination, and injustice. You’ll learn the importance of lobbying for public policy to influence constructive social change and strengthen vulnerable communities. This 66-credit-hour doctoral program can be completed in as few as three years in a hybrid learning format (online coursework with a required one-week residency in Cincinnati each term).

The program places a strong emphasis on applying theory in real-world situations. Through internships, fieldwork, and group projects with community organizations and decision-makers, you can engage in applied learning that has long-lasting effects on your ability to practice ethically and competently.

These opportunities give you the chance to work directly with real-world policy issues. Moreover, you can pursue “Embedded Certificates,” such as Creative Writing, Executive Leadership, Women’s & Gender Studies, Educational Leadership, and more.

UIU’s online PhD in Public Policy and Social Change requires you to have a master’s degree in a related field to apply. There are no GPA requirements. However, you might need to show that you can finish the program by submitting letters of recommendation, personal statements, and writing samples.

DegreePh.D. in Public Policy and Social Change
Completion3 years
FormatHybrid Online
AccreditationHigher Learning Commission

Program Pros:

  • Ample opportunities for real-world learning
  • Embedded certificates provide additional learning and training opportunities
  • Less stringent admissions requirements than other programs on this list

Program Cons:

  • Multiple one-week on-campus residencies are required
  • High cost per credit hour

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Some Common Courses in Online Doctorates in Public Policy?

Online doctoral programs in public policy give you a thorough understanding of public policy, research techniques, and strategic planning, as well as advanced policy analysis. While specific coursework varies from program to program, you might take courses like the following:

  • Ethics and Public Policy: The importance of ethics in decision-making, policy advocacy, and the effects of policies on vulnerable people are some of the ethical concerns covered by this course.
  • Public Budgeting and Finance: This course focuses on budgeting, fiscal management, and income creation, among other financial aspects of public policy. Students study government resource allocation and budgeting procedures.
  • Policy Analysis and Evaluation: The numerous techniques for examining public policies and gauging their efficacy are taught to students. They research methods for evaluating policy results, expenses, and effects.
  • Policy Implementation and Evaluation: Students investigate methods for successfully carrying out policy objectives and the difficulties associated with policy implementation. They also learn how to assess the effects of policy implementation.
  • Public Policy Leadership: This course focuses on the leadership abilities and techniques required for successful policy development and execution. Students gain leadership and management skills for managing policy projects in various organizational settings.
  • Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods: An overview of the research approaches utilized in public policy research is provided in this course. In addition to learning how to design and conduct quantitative and qualitative research, students also learn how to interpret and analyze data.

Dissertation research and writing are other core components of a public policy doctoral program.

What Careers Can I Pursue With a Ph.D. in Public Policy?

A doctorate in public policy can lead to fulfilling job prospects in various fields where you can greatly impact public policy creation, application, and study. Many graduates work in the nonprofit space as executives, managers, or leaders of organizations. With a doctorate, you can also manage policy research, advocacy, and nonprofit program implementation. According to ZipRecruiter, the average yearly salary for a nonprofit executive is $93,552.

Other potential careers you can pursue with a Ph.D. in public policy include the following:

  • Public Affairs Manager
  • Policy Advisor
  • Urban Planning Consultant
  • University Researcher
  • Legislative Analyst
Online Doctorate in Public Policy - fact

Is a Career in Public Policy Worth It?

A job in public policy may be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding if you’re passionate about changing laws that affect people’s lives and bringing about positive change in society. Your work in this field can bring about significant change, which can lead to high job satisfaction.

Another reason public policy is a worthy career is that there are so many areas in which you can work – education, public policy research, and public administration, to name a few. Jobs in public policy can also be financially rewarding, with some having an average annual income over $100,000 per year.

What are the Differences Between a Doctorate in Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Policy?

Public administration programs usually concentrate on equipping you with the knowledge and skills to execute and manage public programs. In other words, it prepares you to be leaders and managers in the public space. Public policy programs primarily deal with analyzing and creating policies to meet social concerns. Public policy work comes before administrative work – you will devise programs to be implemented by public administrators.

Yes, criminal justice and public policy are strongly intertwined. Public policy encompasses the laws and procedures that control crime prevention. It also addresses areas of law enforcement, the courts, and corrections and rehabilitation. Therefore, public policy significantly influences the criminal justice system. 

How Do I Fund My Online Doctorate in Public Policy?

Look for scholarships, grants, and other federal financial aid designed for doctoral students. You can also search for aid specific to public policy programs. Many colleges and universities, private organizations, and government agencies offer financial aid opportunities based on academic merit, financial need, or other criteria. Many programs also offer assistantship opportunities, which can further reduce the cost of your degree.

Rowan Jones
Chief Editor