IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Public health has been defined by the World Health Organization as "the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society."
Starting in fall 2016, undergraduates at the University of Iowa will have the option of emphasizing either the art or science component of that definition as the UI College of Public Health begins two new bachelor degree programs in public health — a fast-growing field of study among four-year universities.
The Iowa state Board of Regents approved the college's request to create a new Bachelor of Science degree and a new Bachelor of Arts degree in public health, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.
The programs are the first of their kind offered in Iowa. They are expected to begin small — with only about 25 students projected for year two — but are projected to grow to 500 students by year seven, according to documents submitted to the regents. The college likewise anticipates that there will be 35 non-majors in year three, increasing to 350 by year seven.
The college, in fact, is behind the curve of offering such programs. More than half of the colleges of public health in the nation already have added an undergraduate degree to their offerings, Mary Lober Aquilino, associate dean for MPH and undergraduate programs, told the regents' Education and Student Affairs Committee last Thursday.
"It's amazing how the need for these degrees has increased over time," said Regent Katie Mulholland, who chairs the committee.
And more such programs are on the way.
The Council on Education for Public Health, the group that oversees and accredits public health programs, has spent more than a decade setting up a process for accrediting such programs at schools that don't already offer graduate programs in public health. The council is in the process of evaluating applications from such schools.
For UI College of Public Health, the council's overall accreditation of the college would extend to the undergraduate program, according to the regent documents. The next accreditation visit is scheduled for July 2018.
Officials at schools with existing undergraduate public health programs say the potential for enrollment in the field has only begun to be tapped.
"Public health in general has been taking off at the undergraduate level," said Lauren Arnold, director of undergraduate programs in public health at Saint Louis University in St. Louis. "There has been much interest nationally in offering such programs" so that undergraduates "might have a role in entry level positions."
Saint Louis University has been offering a Bachelor of Science in public health degree since 2009. The program has about 200 students, freshman through senior, and Arnold said that the program anticipates continued growth.
The UI College of Public Health has been offering graduate degrees, and the occasional undergraduate class, since it was founded in 1999. And since the college moved into its new building in 2012, the professors and researchers have had access to ample classroom, meeting and laboratory space.
The demand for undergraduate classes has grown over the past 16 years. Enrollment for the college's "Fundamentals of Public Health" course, for example, more than doubled (from 28 to 57 students) between fall 2013 and fall 2014. The total enrollment for the online and on-campus sections of the course have increased from 15 to 151 students.
McKenzie Story, a UI freshman from Algonquin, Ill., said she is planning to declare a major in journalism next year, but would be "very interested" in enrolling in the B.A. track in public health as a second major.
Story said the proposed major had been discussed toward the end of the "Fundamentals of Public Health" course she took during the fall semester. The students in the course, she said, reacted excitedly to the suggestion.
"It would be attractive as a major," Story said — especially if it would allow students to go into the field right after their undergraduate studies rather than require them to go on to graduate school.
The new UI programs will provide students with a basic understanding of the five core public health knowledge areas — biostatistics, social and behavioral sciences, epidemiology, health policy and management, and environmental health sciences. Both programs will focus on the various social, economic, quantitative, geographic andeducational issues that impact the health of a community.
Lober Aquilino told the regents that the specific curriculum is still being developed, but as much as two-thirds of the content will be similar — with the B.S. program requiring more science-specific courses and allowing for fewer electives.
The B.A. program will focus on the community and behavioral aspects of public health for students interested in working in health education, health communication, health program development and public health policy in local, federal or international governmental or non-governmental agencies.
The B.S. program will have the basic sciences for students who are interested in working in a laboratory setting or preparing for advanced education in such programs as biostatistics, dentistry, environmental health, epidemiology, medicine, nursing, occupational health, pharmacy and veterinary medicine.
Incoming undergraduate students can be admitted directly into the College of Public Health.
Developing undergraduate programs at other colleges of public health has changed some of the expectations for the faculty there.
For the past three years, for example, the Bachelor of Arts in public health program at the University of Illinois at Chicago has required an increase in the number of faculty and other instructors as the program has grown to 31 juniors and 25 seniors, said Karin Opacich, UIC's assistant dean for undergraduate public health.
That school's program — which doesn't admit students until their junior year — eventually will be capped at 100 incoming students per year.
Opacich said the 22 people who have taught in the program have come from throughout their College of Public Health, from other related disciplines within the university as well as from advanced public health practitioners who have signed on as adjunct faculty.
"Our program is non-discipline specific," Opacich said. "We approach public health as an arena to which many people to work together."
At Saint Louis University, Arnold said it definitely was a change for the faculty who began teaching in the B.S. program. But the program has hired additional part-time faculty members to absorb the additional teaching load.
Butler said that each department within the UI College of Public Health has assigned one faculty member who will participate in the program in the early stages. Eventually, each of the programs will have one key faculty member involved, supplemented by non-tenure-track faculty who also will be providing courses.
There have been concerns raised that — given how some Master of Public Health graduates already have a hard time finding well-paying jobs — the undergraduate degree could degrade the value of the master's program.
UI officials point to recent reports from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, which estimate that the U.S. will face an estimated shortage of 250,000 public health workers by 2020. That shortage is likely to be made worse, according to a 2008 report from the association, given that nearly one-fourth of the current public health workforce was eligible to retire in 2012.
Arnold said about two-thirds of 2014 graduates of the Saint Louis University program are in graduate or professional schools of some kind. Another fourth of the graduates have found full-time jobs.
Opacich said there have only been a handful of graduates from the UIC program, but they are finding a place in the growing and broadening field.
"The jobs that are available may not fall obviously under the category of public heath, but they are public health-related jobs nonetheless," Opacich said.