Public Administration & Policy

Best Public Leadership Certificate Programs

Best Public Leadership Certificate Programs
Public leadership programs are not right for everybody. Many are targeted to professionals at least ten years into their career. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 19, 2020

A plethora of respected schools—including Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Cornell—offer public leadership certificate programs. Let us help you find the one that best fits your needs.

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Listicles are a defining feature of 21st-century life—more so, perhaps, than instant communication, unlimited bandwidth, or cat memes. People use them to rank anything from luxury cars to Disney movies to paperclips.

Unfortunately, public leadership certificate programs have not been ranked yet. If you want to sharpen your skills as a government employee or civil servant, leader in the nonprofit sector, or private-sector executive dealing with the public, how will you know what program to attend?

Many renowned schools offer public leadership certificate programs, including:

Since no two programs are alike, it can be tricky to figure out which one best fits your needs. This article on best public leadership certificate programs explores some of the top programs to help make your decision a little easier. It considers:

  • How do you know you’re ready to earn a public leadership certificate?
  • What are the best certificates in public leadership?
  • How do public leadership programs work?

How do you know you’re ready to earn a public leadership certificate?

Public leadership programs are not right for everybody. Many are targeted to professionals at least ten years into their career. Some have an executive (or equivalent) title.

The student demographic varies by program, of course. For example, the program jointly created by Washington University and renowned center-left think tank Brookings Institute accepts government employees of any level. Others, like the one at the Harvard Kennedy School, target “senior executives and skillful public leaders with more than ten years of experience.”

Typical characteristics of a public leadership certificate candidate include:

  • Government, NGO, or nonprofit employment
  • Currently in an executive-level position
  • Leadership role at work
  • Responsibility for policy creation and/or implementation

Another sign you might be ready is to hold a graduate degree in a public sector field, which means first earning a bachelor’s degree (likely with a similar focus). Such degrees include Master of Public Administration, Master of Public Affairs, or Master of Public Policy. These master’s programs are designed to help aspiring public servants further their education and gain the necessary leadership skills to transition into roles with greater responsibility. Some schools offer a hybrid (i.e., including both online and in-person components) or fully online master’s program for those who cannot attend classes on-campus.

Higher education offers an opportunity to qualify for new jobs and develop skills you might refine during a certificate program. Master’s programs, like leadership certificate programs, frequently seek applicants who already have a career in public service.

What are the best graduate degree programs for public leaders?

According to US News and World Report, top MPA programs include:

Top MPP programs include:

What are the best certificates in public leadership?

While there are no official rankings of the top public leadership certificates, there are ways to determine whether a program is right for you. If you are trying to complete a certificate while maintaining a professional and family life, you might not be willing to attend in-person programs. In that case, an online program will automatically be “better” than options on-campus. Similarly, time commitment can be another determining factor. If you aren’t able to commit to weekly study, that might eliminate some options.

All things being equal, you might decide to choose a program based on the school or organization’s overall reputation in the field of public leadership, affairs, administration, and policy. If a university offers a leadership certificate but doesn’t have any public policy department, you might want to avoid it.

Reputable schools with public leadership programs include:

How do public leadership programs work?

Here’s how six prominent programs structure their public leadership certificate programs, and how much they cost.

Cornell University

The Public Sector Leadership program from Cornell is designed for those in the public sector: government employees, nonprofit leaders, NGO heads, law enforcement, public affairs staff, even aspiring private sector leaders.

Students complete the six online courses over three months, requiring a three- to five-hour weekly commitment.

Notable courses include:

  • Goal Setting in Public Sector Organizations
  • Leadership Skills and Traits in Public Organizations
  • Motivating Public Sector Employees

Students may pay $3,600 upfront or pay in six monthly installments of $650.

Georgetown University

Georgetown’s Executive Certificate in Policy Leadership (ECPL) is a year-long hybrid program. It seeks applicants with seven years or more of public leadership experience and an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or above.

All students complete the same five leadership courses, each requiring two weeks of online study and five days on-campus. Georgetown’s “tentative” schedule includes courses in:

  • Negotiation and Conflict Management
  • Public Budgeting & Financial Management
  • Public Policy Process for Executives

Students pay a tuition of $35,319 for the entire 15-credit graduate certificate. That number can increase to as much as $60,750 when factoring in other expenses, including books, travel, and room for the in-person component.

If admitted, graduates of the program can also carry credits from the ECPL into the Executive Master in Policy Leadership (EMPL) degree.

Harvard Kennedy School

The Executive Certificate in Public Leadership through the Harvard Kennedy School is designed for professionals with at least ten years of public leadership experience. Students must complete three courses (from a more extensive list of 24) within six years to earn the executive leadership certificate. Most classes are offered on-campus only, but a few can be taken online.

Some classes include:

  • Implementing Public Policy
  • Leadership for the 21st Century
  • Strategic Management of Regulatory and Enforcement Agencies

Each section is priced uniquely, which means the total cost of a Harvard leadership certificate is difficult to calculate. However, courses generally run from $3,000 to around $10,000. The school offers a discount on your final course.

Rutgers University

If you want to earn a leadership certificate without spending months (or years) on coursework, Rutgers’ two-day Strategic Communications for Public Leaders certificate may be for you. The program, which is open to “anyone from the public or nonprofit sectors,” is entirely online.

Rutgers offers four seminars:

  • Communication Planning and Content Creation for Public Organizations
  • Creating Engaging Websites
  • Digital Communications and Social Media
  • Public and Media Relations

Tuition, which includes all course materials, is $500.

University of Connecticut

The UConn Leadership & Public Management Certificate is designed for those in the workforce and current UConn students.

Students complete four classes within an unspecified timeframe. Sample course titles include:

  • Financial Management for Public Organizations
  • Human Resource Management
  • Program Development and Evaluation

Students are required to pay by the credit. For 2020-21, in-state students pay $940 per credit plus fees; out-of-state students pay $2,157 per credit.

Washington University in St Louis

The Certificate in Public Leadership program, conducted through the Brookings Institute, accepts government employees of all levels. The total length of the program is 20 days. However, Brookings does not place any time constraints on how long a student might take to complete it. You also must write a short paper about your experience and attend at least five leadership courses, which means you cannot simply focus on policy. The program also requires all students to take an ethics course.

Course titles include:

  • Accountability for Results
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Courageous Leadership

The program does not have an enrollment fee. Students pay by the class. Costs range from $1,000 to $2,000 per course.

So, which public leadership certificate program is the best?

The answer to this question depends on your preferences. If attending an Ivy League University is essential, you might decide that a program affiliated with Cornell or Harvard. If time and cost are most critical, pick Rutgers.

Browsing course offerings is another excellent way to decide your top choice. For instance, you might feel constrained by the universal schedule of Georgetown, or determine the freedom of Washington University makes self-motivation difficult. It’s worth some self-exploration.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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