The Social Policy Concentration focuses on how to improve the lives of citizens by supporting their education, work, health and wellbeing.

This focus includes needs for supports and services from governments, civil society, private sector entities and non-governmental organizations for all stages of life. These supports and services include schooling and education, housing assistance, crime reduction and poverty reduction, among others. Social policy aims to promote equity by identifying and addressing inequalities in access to supports and services for individuals in different socially defined groups, such as race and ethnicity,socio-economic status and age.

This concentration prepares MPP students to assume positions in government, private sector, and nonprofits dealing with public policy issues that address the needs of citizens or society to access education, work, health and wellbeing. These positions include roles as data analysts, program evaluators, municipal government specialists, company government affairs or social responsibility managers, equity-based lobbying consultants and civil society advocates. Social policy topics impact society across all industry sectors.

Students can benefit from

Interdisciplinary ties to other Duke schools and academic programs, both in the Sanford School and throughout Duke University.

Faculty members with a formidable combination of academic and practical credentials in social policy.

Each semester is filled with campus visits and speeches by contemporary social policy leaders.

Man speaking into microphone
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker speaking on racial inequality.

Strong connections to faculty with expertise on social policy in North Carolina government and the federal government.

Organizational home for the North Carolina Education Research Data Center, which houses all public school student records for the state of North Carolina and facilitates a range of education and social policy.

Knowledge and skills students can acquire

  • historical and current view of social policy, with an understanding of the impact of laws, regulations, and data on social outcomes;
  • Understanding the roles and power that data, analysis, and design have on social policy outcomes;
  • Knowledge of social science research methods that use qualitative and quantitative data collection to inform and shape policies, programs, and products;
  • Perspectives on the social risks associated with inequity of opportunity and income – specifically touching on race and wealth across the U.S. and in the South, in particular;
  • The ability to evaluate and analyze policy, program, or product impacts and outcomes informed by program evaluation;
  • Specific knowledge of how to design and measure a policy or program using methods such as randomized control trials, storytelling, and human-centered design;
  • Connections to internships and capstone projects with local, state and federal government entities, and at social organizations; and
  • Practical skills in coding and data analysis (Stata, Python, R, NVivo), communication and teamwork.

Policy Concentration Advisor

Carolyn Yvette Barnes

Carolyn Yvette Barnes

Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Carolyn Barnes is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Carolyn completed a PhD in Political Science and Public Policy from the University of Michigan, where she worked as an affiliate of the National Poverty Center conducting research on the effects of nonprofit community-based service provision on parenting practices and the psycho-social well being of families and children. Her research agenda broadly explores the social and political implications of social policy on low-income populations in the areas of childcare policy, family services, and supports for young children.

Her current book project consists of an in-depth organizational ethnography that examines how publicly funded nonprofit social services shape the political behavior of the economically disadvantaged. With special attention to the role of broad neighborhood, policy, and political contexts, Carolyn has initiated a new line of research that takes an interdisciplinary approach to assess the health implications of federal and state supports for women and children.  


"I believe my education at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy will provide me with the skills to partner with equity advocates to bring innovation to our systems and institutions."

– Tim Lindsey, Teach for America Alum, MPP’23


Explore faculty, centers and other resources the Sanford School has related to the study of social policy.

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