How to earn a spot at UNC Chapel Hill’s online master’s of public health program

BY Rich GrisetApril 27, 2022, 1:41 PM
One of the symbols of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Old Well stands at the edge of McCorkle Place as people pass by, as seen in June 2021. (Photo by Eamon Queeney—The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, there’s been a surge in interest in medical and health care professions that’s been dubbed the “Fauci effect.” Named for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president, this interest appears to have impacted the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

In fall 2018, 66 students enrolled in the inaugural term of Gillings’ online master’s degree program in public health. Less than four years later, the program has swelled to nearly 500 students. While some of this increase is due to the natural growth of the program, the pandemic likely played a role as well.

“There’s greater recognition of what is public health, what is epidemiology, because it’s in the mainstream news,” says Catherine Gihlstorf, associate director of Gillings’ online MPH format, of the Fauci effect.

Located at one of the top-ranked public health schools in the country, the online MPH@UNC program offers four concentrations: leadership in practice, applied epidemiology, nutrition, and nutrition and dietetics (the latter of which prepares students for the registered dietitian exam).

What does it take to earn a spot at in UNC’s online MPH program? Here are four things you need to know before applying.

1. UNC offers a rolling admissions process with four enrollment dates each year

Prospective Tar Heels have two different ways to apply to the online master’s of public health program. Candidates can either fill out an application or connect with an admissions counselor to first discuss their personal goals, ideal timeline, and other aspects of the program before filling out the application. 

Along with the application, students are required to supply three letters of recommendation, complete a statement of purpose, and choose a concentration. Admissions are rolling; once an application is complete, UNC will return a decision within a couple of weeks. Like UNC’s residential MPH program, a GRE score is not required. Gillings has four entry terms per year for its online program: January, May, August, and September. 

“Our admissions standards for our online program replicate our residential program,” says Dana Rice, assistant dean of master’s degree programs at Gillings and assistant professor in the school’s public health leadership program. “Those same high standards apply online.”

In 2021, Gillings admitted between 65% and 70% of applicants to its MPH@UNC program, depending on the concentration.

As for what type of background students should have, Gihlstorf says that also varies, depending on a student’s desired concentration. Someone concentrating in dietetics should have a strong science background; meanwhile, an applicant in applied epidemiology should have a research, statistical, and programming background. A potential student applying for the leadership concentration should demonstrate leadership experience through the personal statement and letters of recommendation.

2. Highlight skills, public health focus in application

Just like any other undergrad or graduate public health program, the online MPH@UNC is an interdisciplinary degree, Rice notes. Applicants don’t need to highlight their past experience as much as why they want to have a public health focus. 

“We’re looking for skill attainment, rather than a very specific level of undergraduate training,” Rice says. “We have students who have majored in French history. We have students who have majored in undergraduate public health, which is a relatively new discipline in the undergraduate space.”

While the online program hosts students from around the nation and the world, the majority live in North Carolina. “Because we are a state institution, there is a strong regionality to our program, so a good number of our students are from North Carolina, even if not in the Raleigh-Durham area,” Gihlstorf says.

Unlike UNC’s residential MPH program, the online version allows students to attend the program part-time. Reflecting the fact that many online MPH students are working professionals, these students are generally older than the residential students. Some 90% of online students attend the program part-time.

Generally, Gihlstorf says, students either don’t currently work in public health and are trying to enter the field or wish to continue their current job but gain public health competencies. 

“We have a number of professionals—either dentists, doctors, physical therapists, EMTs—who want to have that public health focus,” Gihlstorf says. “They may get a promotion, but their purpose was to stay where they are but deepen their learning.”

Because the program is online, there is no limit to the number of students the MPH@UNC program can admit. “If a student meets our admissions criteria, they will be admitted, and we have the means to scale the program to meet that number of students,” Gihlstorf says.

3. Expect the online MPH@UNC program to mimic the residential experience

If you think the online version of UNC’s MPH program is easier than its residential program, think again.

“The entirety of our curriculum is actually exactly the same curriculum that is taught residentially,” Rice says. “There really is no difference. We haven’t created different classes just for our online format. This is the same training that students get residentially.”

UNC’s online MPH program uses a “flipped classroom” model, so students do asynchronous pre-work on their own time during the week, then meet online once a week per class for live sessions with peers and an instructor.

Full-time Gillings instructors design the curriculum and record the asynchronous learning material; live session instruction is typically handled by instructors who are practitioners and can illuminate the curriculum with real-world examples. Every student is also assigned a faculty mentor to receive guidance and feedback on schoolwork and careers.

Students advance at their own pace and are allowed to take up to five years to complete the degree program. On average, most students finish after seven terms—and with three 13-week terms per year, that comes out to about two and a half years. Students in the dietetics concentration are an exception, however; those students are in a lockstep program that takes two years.

Gihlstorf says the flexibility of the online program is a boon to working professionals. “You don’t have to quit your job,” she says. “You can do this at your own pace: one class, two classes, three classes per term.” 

4. Review scholarships and financial aid options available to applicants

As with most of the master’s level programs at UNC, the financial aid available to online MPH students is primarily loans. Applicants fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form through UNC’s financial aid office, which calculates potential need. Some military affiliated students utilize military education benefits to help fund their education. A smaller group have access to employer funding or tuition reimbursement from their employer.

The program also offers discipline-specific or funder-sponsored awards for which students can either be nominated by their concentration or they can self-nominated if they meet the award’s criteria. These awards are competitive and are offered on an annual basis. In past terms, UNC has offered a $12,000 blanket scholarship to MPH@UNC attendees; while that funding has now expired, similar funding may be available in the future.

While most students end up footing the bill for their online MPH degree, the flexibility to work while going to school can lessen the financial burden. And students don’t need to compromise on the rigor of the program by attending school online.

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