Note from the Editor
Understanding Accreditation for Schools of Public Health
If you’re thinking of going for a public health degree, have you checked to see whether the schools or programs you’re considering are accredited? Do you know what that means, or why it could matter for your career?
Ask the Editor:
What does it mean for a school of public health to be "accredited?"
Accreditation for schools of public health is provided by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). CEPH also accredits public health programs, including MPH programs, at institutions that do not have their own schools of public health. CEPH is a nonprofit organization with a board that includes appointees from both APHA and the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH).
CEPH sets standards for the curriculum, the quality of the learning environment, even financial sustainability. They look at the school or program’s resources, from the faculty to the library and computer labs. They check out opportunities for students to gain practical skills at outside agencies and organizations. All told, there are more than 20 different criteria for accreditation.
Kristen Force, an Accreditation Specialist at CEPH, tells me that accreditation is sort of like consumer protection: if a school or program is accredited, you know it has met standards established by the public health profession.
What goes into the accreditation process?
"Process" is a good word for it! Force filled me in on some of the basics. There are some differences in the processes for public health schools vs. programs, but the general idea is the same. First, the school or program spends about 2 years doing a self-study, looking at how they’re doing with a long list of requirements. (Want to see the accreditation criteria? Full details are online at the CEPH website http://ceph.org/pg_accreditation_criteria.htm.
Next, CEPH sends a team out for an intensive visit. The team consists of public health practitioners, academics, and a specialist from the CEPH accreditation office. They talk to program leaders, alumni, community representatives, practicum preceptors, university leaders—all sorts of people who are involved with the educational programs. They look at students’ practicum reports, course syllabi, course evaluations, faculty CVs, and more. "Basically," Force told me, "We’re putting life to the self-study."
Once a school or program passes, they need to demonstrate that they’re keeping up their standards. They must be reaccredited after the first 5 years, then again every 7 years.
What’s in the required curriculum?
Keep in mind that accreditation is about a lot more than just the curriculum. Having course requirements that match CEPH guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean that the school or program meets the other criteria.
The training for an MPH at an accredited school or program will cover at least 5 basic areas:
- Environmental health sciences
- Health services administration
- Social and behavioral sciences
At minimum, a school of public health must offer MPH or equivalent degrees with specialties in each of these 5 areas and doctoral-level degrees in at least 3 of them. A program outside a school of public health can offer a generalist MPH (or equivalent) and/or an MPH with areas of specialization.
You can learn more about what goes into these categories at the CEPH website, www.ceph.org and at ASPH http://www.asph.org/document.cfm?page=797#core, which represents accredited schools.
If a school or program isn’t accredited, does that mean it isn’t any good?
When I was finishing my medical degree, my own university was just starting an MPH program, and it wasn’t accredited. I remember wondering if that made it less legitimate… but at the same time, I knew one of the people involved, and I’m sure he was doing everything possible to offer a thorough and useful education.
It turns out that no matter how good a school or program is (or isn’t), it takes about 3 years to get from application to accreditation decision. So a new program might be just fine—even very good—but simply not accredited yet. CEPH has a list of applicants (http://www.ceph.org/pg_accreditedschools_applicants.htm) that are going through the process.
I asked Force why a more established program might not be accredited, and she said there could be many reasons. The process is pretty involved, and they may choose not to take the time and expense. Sometimes a school or program doesn’t make the cut on the first application, and they may be making improvements so they can try again. Occasionally, a school or program applies, doesn’t pass, and doesn’t come back.
CEPH publishes their accreditation decisions, both positive and negative. If you’re considering a place that isn’t accredited, it’s worth a call to the school to find out more.
Will going to an accredited school or program make it easier for me to get a job?
It depends. For example, if you want to be a public health officer with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (http://www.usphs.gov), you’ll need a master’s degree from a CEPH-accredited source. Some internships and fellowships, which can help you make important connections, only take students from accredited programs and schools.
If you’re planning to take the Certified in Public Health (http://www.nbphe.org) exam, you’ll need to have a degree from an accredited school or program, or from one that became accredited within 3 years of your graduation.
Then again, if you know where you’re going to be working and they don’t require a degree from an accredited program, or if you’re already in the field and just looking to improve your skills, it could be less important. Force suggests that before you make the decision, you should look ahead to where you want your career to go and what requirements you might face in the future. Even if you don’t need it now, a degree from an accredited school or program can be helpful when it’s time to change jobs. You can also ask the place you’re considering to put you in touch with recent alumni, so you can see where their degrees have taken them.
How can I find out if a school or program is accredited?
You can search for accredited schools and programs, including on-campus and online degrees, at the CEPH website (http://www.ceph.org/pg_accreditedschools_search.aspx).