One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are better educated in public health than ever before. And the nation has increasingly taken note of existing health disparities by race, ethnicity, geography, and socioeconomic status as the pandemic affects communities disproportionately.

Academic leaders at Brown’s School of Public Health say that the boost in public health awareness is one key factor behind a massive spike in interest in Brown’s Master of Public Health program—a surge driven largely by applicants from groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

Colleges and universities nationally have seen 20% to 30% increases in MPH applications this year, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health reports. But the rise at Brown is even more striking: the MPH program received 948 applications, compared to 437 at this time last year—an increase of 116%. And the most dramatic increase in interest came from prospective students of color. The number of applicants who identify as Black or African American increased by 187%, and the number of Latinx applicants jumped 137%.

According to Annie Gjelsvik, director of the Brown MPH program and associate professor of epidemiology, “this shows how many people are truly understanding what public health means and how it plays out in our lives, and how they could apply public health skills to challenges in the real world.”

Dr. Ashish K. Jha
, dean of the School of Public Health, believes the interest in the MPH program can be attributed to three primary factors: the global health emergency, the School’s longstanding focus on the importance of public health, and the high visibility of the work of Brown’s public health and medicine scholars.

“We’re living in a public health moment, and focusing on public health is a University priority,” Jha said. “On top of that, there’s a lot of interesting work coming out of the School related to the pandemic as well as to other health crises, and word has been getting around.”

The nature of the Brown MPH program makes it particularly suited for training leaders to deal with these messy, tumultuous times, he said. As is the case for Brown undergraduates creating their path of study through the Open Curriculum, MPH students are empowered to engage in the design and implementation of their educational experience. They focus on one of seven public health concentrations, and take general electives and other graduate-level courses. This broad scope, characteristic of the University as a whole, isn’t often a feature of other MPH programs.

“We want to make sure that the students are growing their knowledge within public health and also building new networks and encountering new concepts,” Gjelsvik said. “Consistent with the values of Brown, the MPH program offers a great deal of flexibility and support for helping individual students craft their own educational and intellectual path.”

There is no better lesson of the far-reaching implications of a public health crisis than the COVID-19 pandemic, Jha says.

“Public health is inherently multidisciplinary— the pandemic has made this clear,” he said. “Issues have come up that remind us that exceptional leaders need expertise beyond the confines of this specific field to do public health well.”

“We always say that you learn public health by doing public health. That feels very relevant for people right now,” Jha said, “as they see how the pandemic has affected communities of color and other disadvantaged people.”

Public health is inherently multidisciplinary—the pandemic has made this clear. Issues have come up that remind us that exceptional leaders need expertise beyond the confines of this specific field to do public health well.

Dean Ashish K. Jha MD, MPH

In response to the massive increase in interest in advanced public health education, the MPH program will double in size this year, to roughly 90 students. Even at that size, the Brown MPH will remain a relatively small program compared to those at other schools, and program leaders say they are committed to preserving the personalized feel that students have come to expect. The School expects to substantially expand the faculty base, Jha says.

“My hope is that the very customized, individualized experience remains, but that we’ll be able to do it across a bit of a broader swath of individuals, and that we’ll have more faculty engaged to make it happen,” he said.

When Jha joined the School of Public Health in September 2020, he noted the importance of expanding the diversity of the student body.

“Bringing in more diverse voices to change the face of public health leadership will elevate and address key issues central to closing the gaps in public health outcomes,” he said at that time.

Of the 948 prospective students who applied to the MPH program for next fall, 146 were from historically underrepresented groups—not only a 112% increase for the program, but just three fewer applications from underrepresented students than were received last year for all programs in the School of Public Health.

The increased diversity among applicants came as a result of a variety of new recruitment measures. The School built upon its outreach to historically black colleges and universities; offered a number of application fee waivers; waived GRE requirements; and expanded recruitment beyond the Northeast to all areas of the country.

The School also launched a Health Equity Scholars program which provides tuition support, enhanced mentorship, and leadership training to qualified graduates and current students of HBCUs who are dedicated to addressing health disparities. “The Health Equity Scholarship program is just one part of our larger goal to change the face of public health leadership in America,” Jha said. “We are making it known that the Brown School of Public Health is a place where students of color, as well as students from disadvantaged backgrounds, can feel like this is not only a place where they belong, but where they can thrive.”