The University of Minnesota is adding a new undergraduate degree in public health in an effort to help meet the state’s critical need for a more robust and diverse workforce to keep residents healthy.
The new program, set to launch in the fall, adds to US’s existing public health offerings: a master’s degree and an undergraduate minor that has proven to be one of the most popular minors on the Twin Cities campus. Other institutions in Minnesota, including the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University and St. Catherine, offer bachelor’s degree programs in this field.
It is the first undergraduate degree program in the 78-year history of the U’s School of Public Health and would support a career field that has been in the spotlight since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leaders in public health are needed “now more than ever,” U Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson wrote in a statement. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed “opportunities for improvement throughout our current public health system” and exposed racial, geographic and health disparities, she wrote.
“This new program will provide undergraduate students with the skills to understand public health challenges, implement prevention strategies, and address the underlying influences that determine health outcomes and disparities between them,” Croson wrote.
A “tsunami” of retirements has also depleted the public health workforce, which was further stretched thin by the burdens and demands of meeting community health needs during the pandemic, said Ruby Nguyen, an associate professor in the School of Public Health.
According to a study published in American Journal of Public Health.
In addition, the last explorative from the School of Public Health indicates that at least 80,000 new workers are needed to meet the nation’s most basic public health needs.
“There’s a lot of dinner table conversation about the role of public health and public health practitioners, and many Minnesotans feel that public health has a lot of influence in their lives,” Nguyen said. “But there is a lot of quiet, successful work in this area that we risk losing if we are unable to maintain the current public health infrastructure.”
The hope is that offering the degree will prepare a larger and more diverse pool of students to help fill open positions.
Nearly half of this year’s roughly 500 students with a public health minor are indigenous or from communities of color, Nguyen said.
“We see that there is absolutely an interest in this area and an interest among students that we would like to recruit because of the disparities that we and they want to address,” she said.
What makes the degree program — which will admit juniors — different from other university offerings is its broad, community-oriented approach to teaching about public health. A nutritionist or psychologist may still work in the public health field, but their education will likely focus on treating the individual, Nguyen said. A student pursuing an undergraduate public health degree will take courses that consider the personal and systemic factors that determine good or poor health, Nguyen said.
The curriculum will include ways to create effective public health strategies to prevent disease, promote health in local communities, and identify and eliminate health disparities.
Graduates of the program may go on to work in public health education, research or data analysis roles in local health departments, nonprofit organizations, health care systems or research facilities, university officials said.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the announcement,” Nguyen said. “I’m hearing from students who say, ‘I wish you had this five or 10 years ago.’