50 Most Innovative Public Service Schools in the U.S.

Updated December 5, 2022

In the United States, we have a unique interest in government and public policy, and thus a unique interest in public service.

BestValueSchools.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

By Iris Stone
Published July 2020

In the United States, we have a unique interest in government and public policy, and thus a unique interest in public service degree programs. We churn out more lawyers per square mile than we can possibly employ, and many new professionals flock to the powerful, promising city of Washington, D.C. We keep up with daily news and keep tabs on government officials, and are often surprisingly educated on issues of the economy, healthcare, and social justice.

As a nation in-arguably founded on the pursuit of an ethical, effective government while fleeing an oppressive one, it's no surprise that the United States is home to a wealth of universities with dedicated public service schools. Whether they dub it Public Affairs, Public Policy, Political Science, Government, or something else, these schools have committed themselves to creating impressive programs. They invent creative opportunities for students and establish fellowships, seminars, study abroad programs, research institutes, collaborative initiatives, and much more. They do all this to brand themselves as a school worthy of the most innovative, entrepreneurial public service students - some of whom may one day end up in the upper echelons of the federal government.


But how do you define "innovative"? Many of these schools could be classified as "good," due simply to their expensive facilities or highly paid faculty. But as we set out to describe a list of the most innovative public service schools in the United States, we developed a methodology that hopefully identifies the universities doing truly innovative work.

Some of the categories we researched were fairly straightforward, and meant simply to filter the high quality schools from the ones not worth mentioning. This included looking at the institutions' U.S. News Public Affairs Graduate Schools rankings and considering each department's student-to-faculty ratio. We also considered how to qualify the schools that offered students the most options, so we counted the number of degree programs as well as dual/joint/concurrent public service degrees they all offered. We then grew more specific, ranking the quality of each department's internship and career services programs, and even going so far as to count the number of unique and innovative public policy programs at each university. Lastly, we gave extra points to schools who gained the unique distinction of being honored as "innovative" by QS World Rankings. We assigned each school points and weighted each category based on our understanding of its significance in defining innovative public service schools, using information from multiple reputable sources as our guides in this process.

  • U.S. News Ranking: maximum 27 points, 16% of total ranking
  • Number of Degree Programs: maximum 15 points, 9% of total ranking
  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio: maximum 15 points, 9% of total ranking
  • Number of Joint/Dual/Concurrent Degree Programs: maximum 33 points, 20% of total ranking
  • Strength of Internship Programs: maximum 20 points, 12% of total ranking
  • QS Top Universities Innovation Ranking: maximum 15 points, 9% of total ranking
  • Number of Innovative Features: maximum 40 points, 24% of total ranking

As you can see, there were a maximum of 165 total points included in this methodology. In other words, a school that scored perfectly in every category would have earned 165 points and a 100% grade. Of course, no school is perfect, and in fact the most points we awarded was 119. Nonetheless, this ranking system should give you a useful idea of which schools offer the most innovative programs in public service, giving students access to a wealth of degree options, numerous research opportunities, and extensive learning experiences outside the classroom. We have listed them from least innovative to most innovative, along with the "Net Price" values.

Net Price refers to a school's average total cost after factoring in tuition, expenses, scholarships, and financial aid packages. Weigh your interest in innovation with your need for cost savings, and choose the school that's right for you!

#1 Harvard University Cambridge, MA
#2 Duke University Durham, NC
#3 New York University New York, NY
#4 Princeton University Princeton, NJ
#5 Rutgers University - Newark Newark, NJ
#6 University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA
#7 University of Chicago Chicago, IL
#8 University of Minnesota Crookston, MN
#9 University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
#10 George Mason University Fairfax, VA

Featured Online Programs

Figuring out where to apply? These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online degrees. Consider one of these accredited programs, and discover their value today.

  1. Harvard University

    Cambridge, MA



    The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, named after one of the United States' most loved presidents, offers competitive programs to only the most talented students. One of the few American schools graced with a 5 star innovation ranking from QS Top Universities, plus the #3 spot on the U.S. News list, Harvard offers a practically endless list of resources. Students can choose from a handful of specially designed degrees and have the option to select from an impressive list of joint programs. They can also pursue research through one of more than 60 programs covering leadership, civil society, ethics, business, women and government, and you guessed it…innovation. As Harvard has a reputation for being one of the best universities in the world, it's no surprise that it ended up at the top of the list for innovative public service schools.

  2. Duke University

    Durham, NC



    Duke students can choose from a number of undergraduate degrees, pursue a master's in public policy or international development, or even earn their PhD. Dual degrees are available in traditional selections, such as business administration and law, as well as more unique areas of study, such as the environment and medicine. Duke encourages student entrepreneurship and offers stellar internship and career placement services. The public service school's Distinguished Lecture Series at Sanford also offers students rare access to high-profile leaders.

  3. New York University

    New York, NY



    New York University, an urban college with buildings scattered throughout the bustling downtown metropolis, is often noted for its excellent instruction in the creative arts. However, its Wagner School of Public Affairs is equally notable, regularly receiving recognition from ranking experts at U.S. News. Sometimes overshadowed by its Ivy League neighbor, NYU offers just as many if not more innovative programs to aspiring public service professionals. Students complete rigorous Capstone requirements and select from a unique spread of seminars in economics, finance, politics, law, and global justice. NYU also boasts a long list of research opportunities, including the "Innovation Lab," which runs cutting-edge experiments testing the latest and greatest public policy theories.

  4. Princeton University

    Princeton, NJ



    Princeton University, as an Ivy League institution, is often lauded as one of the premier colleges in the country. The institution's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, named after a former United States president, concentrates on motivating a strong commitment to public service. Ranked as the 5th best school of its kind by U.S. News, Princeton also holds the rare honor of receiving 5 innovation stars from QS Rankings. Public service degree students can explore the Bernstein Gallery, which critically analyzes contemporary policy issues; attend the annual JRCPPF conference on equity and finance; or tap into the resources of nearly 20 collaborative research centers and institutes. While College Navigator lists the average net price as $21,231/yr for Princeton undergrads, the Woodrow Wilson School reports that due to its generous aid package, all students graduate debt-free.

  5. Rutgers University - Newark

    Newark, NJ



    In addition to Rutger's Camden location, its Newark location also deserves a mention on this list of innovative public service schools. Students enjoy numerous unique degree programs and international partnerships, and can conduct research through the Rutgers Institute on Anti-Corruption Studies, Center for Technology Leadership, Center for Applied Appreciative Inquiry, or Institute on Transparency and Governance, just to name a few. Other unique options include the Virtual Museum of Public Service, which helps to inspire socially responsible careers, and the New Jersey DataBank, which makes information on government officials easily accessible.

  6. University of Pittsburgh

    Pittsburgh, PA



    The 33rd-ranked Public Affairs Program by U.S. News, the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs features numerous accelerated programs, online learning opportunities, and numerous centers of research. The school's main focus is on public administration and international development, but joint public service degrees are also available in business administration, law, public health, social work, and information science. Although located in Pittsburgh, area students will enjoy the short drive to career opportunities in Washington, D.C., and can also apply for international programs in Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, South Korea, France, South Africa, China, or Colombia.

  7. University of Chicago

    Chicago, IL



    The University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy offers Master's, PhD, and Joint degrees to talented individuals. The school's interdisciplinary approach allows Public Policy students to link their studies with a major in Middle Eastern Studies, Business Administration (MBA), Law (JD), Social Service Administration, or even Divinity. Students can also take advantage of a professional option and earn a bachelor's and master's in just five years. Understanding that "rigorous classroom study is only half the equation," the department also allows Chicago students to find summer internships, participate in team projects, take international seminars, attend speaker series, and connect with helpful local mentors.

  8. University of Minnesota

    Crookston, MN



    The University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs is currently rated in the Top 20 on U.S. News' list of Public Affairs graduate programs. Students can major in public policy, urban and regional planning, environmental policy, international development, or public affairs, plus earn certificates in early childhood policy, nonprofit management, or policy issues on work and pay. Outside the classroom, public service degree students can join the International Fellowship Program, spearhead a diversity initiative, and perform service outreach and field experiences. Other particularly innovative options include the Feminist Leadership Fellowship Program, which helps support female executives in the nonprofit sector.

  9. University of Virginia

    Charlottesville, VA



    The University of Virginia is well-known as one of the top schools in the state, and boasts the prestigious Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The entire public service school consists of one innovation after another, and encourages students to explore entrepreneurial thinking and social values. In addition to a number of traditional programs, students can also apply to complete joint ventures in Public Policy/Law (JD), Public Policy/Business Administration (MBA), Public Policy/Education Policy (PhD), Public Policy/Public Health, and Public Policy/Urban and Environmental Planning. Members of the Batten School complete summer internships, participate in "Batten Reports," and apply for special funding and fellowship opportunities.

  10. George Mason University

    Fairfax, VA



    George Mason University is an up-and-coming public institution with a growing reputation for excellence in a number of areas. A fledgling community college just 40 years ago, GMU now hosts nearly 30,000 students each year. Students are particularly attracted to its School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, which features distinguished faculty with professional experience in the federal government, military, and nonprofit sector. Working with a well-known economics department, SPGIA provides first-rate academics and competitive internships in nearby Washington, D.C. Other innovative offerings include the Global Politics Fellows, the Public Service Fellows, and research centers exploring everything from energy science and entrepreneurship to philosophy and corruption.

College Navigator
Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration
U.S. News Ranking & Reviews
QS Top Universities Innovation Rankings
Princeton Review

About the Author:
Iris Stone began her writing career when she started working as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her freelance business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and graduates' careers. Her interests span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist. Check out her Google+ Profile.

Get prepared for your next steps

Use articles and resources to uncover answers to common questions, get guidance on your goals, and learn about applying to schools.

Discover a program that is right for you.

Explore different options for you based on your degree interests.