The terms “social justice” and “human rights” are often used interchangeably. While closely connected, they’re not identical. Human rights refer to the basic rights everyone is owed – like the right to food and water, the right to housing, and the right to be free from discrimination – but social justice is more concerned with the distribution of wealth, privileges, and opportunities. Human rights affirm that everyone deserves adequate shelter, but social justice focuses on the fact that some people can only afford rent on a 2-room apartment shared with three roommates while a wealthy individual buys up multiple single-family homes.
No one degree is required to work in the social justice field, but there are degree programs in the USA focusing on the subject. Some are social justice-specific, but there are other programs where you can choose a social justice concentration or earn a certificate offered by an educational institution. Here are ten examples:
George Mason University (Fairfax, VA)
The Social Justice and Human Rights concentration is available in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program. Students can design their studies around what matters most to them and gain an understanding of the social, political, cultural, historical, and economic threads binding social justice issues. The concentration prioritizes a global and intersectional framework. Course and research topics include immigration, disability rights, racial justice, and environmental justice. Experiential learning opportunities – like internships, consulting projects, and field studies – are also available.
To earn the MA, students will need to complete 36 total credits. 14 are required courses. Students also need a certain number of credits in Emphasis Courses, Experiential Learning, Elective Courses, a Research Methods course, and a capstone project or thesis.
Eastern Kentucky University (Richmond, KY)
The Social Justice Studies major from this public university embraces an interdisciplinary framework, encouraging students to become critical thinkers with a global, intersectional perspective. The SJS program focuses on going beyond the idea of “justice” within crime, law, and the criminal justice system. Students study the diversity of social issues, like economic inequality, classism, sexism, colonialism, war, and more. With this degree, students are equipped as global and local citizens motivated to work towards a more just world.
The SJS program consists of a Core series of courses (18 hours), Electives (15 hours), and Supporting courses (12 hours). This major is offered through EKU’s School of Justice Studies.
The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)
The Master of Arts in Higher Education offers a concentration in Diversity and Social Justice. This program provides students with the knowledge and skills necessary for addressing diversity and social justice issues in higher education. With the support of other students and faculty, the program explores educational policies, the practice of social justice education, and how knowledge can be implemented. Students are paired with an advisor from the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education based on what the student is interested in.
The Diversity and Social Justice program takes two years of full-time study with at least 30 credits. Students complete 9 credits in Core courses, 15 in the Diversity and Social Justice concentration, and 6 Cognate courses (which must be outside Higher Education and must address diversity and social justice issues). Students must also complete a 2-semester internship.
Hamline University (St. Paul, MN)
This BA program prepares students for a career in social justice with an understanding of social injustices based on history, culture, geography, theory, and ethics. Students learn skills needed to problem-solve using innovative, analytical, ethical, and integrative methods. Majors in this program have gone on to careers in politics, human services, human rights, education, and more.
To earn the BA in Social Justice, students must take 12 courses. Two are required courses. The others must be the following areas: one course in politics or legal studies; one in social, cultural, economic, or psychological analysis of social justice issues; one in history with a social justice focus; one in moral, ethical, or values concerns; and one in practical skills. Students must also take at least five courses in one of three concentrations: an existing discipline or interdisciplinary program (like philosophy, law, women’s studies, etc); a specific geographical area (like Asia, the United States, etc); or a student + advisor-designed concentration. Internships or fieldwork is not required for this program, but it’s highly encouraged.
Marian University (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin)
This program at Marian University (a private Catholic school) explores the promises of justice, the realities of injustice, and practical solutions. Students build a strong understanding of ethics, philosophy, history, human rights, power, and diversity. While taking coursework, students work with local organizations like health advocacy groups, community centers, and social services offices.
Of the 120 credits needed for a bachelor’s degree, students must take 30 credits of general education courses. After the introductory Social Justice Courses and five additional courses, students choose courses aligned with a specific concentration: Religion and Social Justice; Advanced Cultural Studies; Environmental Justice; and Global Justice and Human Rights. Students can also design a unique concentration with guidance from faculty.
Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT)
For millennia, philosophers have wrestled with questions about ethics, society, and justice. Philosophical methods of analysis and argumentation are important parts of activism and social progress. Available through the Philosophy department, the social justice track provides students with the knowledge and skills necessary to reckon with injustice. They will apply their philosophical skills to issues of human rights, social responsibility, and equality.
Philosophy majors submit proposals when applying for the social justice track. Proposals should include three philosophy courses and two non-philosophy courses that create a coherent concentration. Additionally, students must take one Core course in history or mind and reality, as well as two philosophy electives and at least two advanced philosophy courses (in any area) during their junior or senior years.
MH/MSS Social Justice Track
The Graduate Social Justice Track is an interdisciplinary Masters available to students admitted to the Master of Humanities/Master of Social Science Program. Students build knowledge and practical skills related to democracy, education, race, class, gender, and more. The program provides learning opportunities that prioritize intersectional understandings of the social justice issues of today. Coursework, internships, collaborative research, events, and training help students thrive.
The MH and MSS degrees both require 36 credits. 9 must be through the Core requirements. At least 12 must be Social Justice-themed. Students must also take elective courses and complete a project or thesis (worth 3-6 credits) on a social justice topic. It’s strongly recommended that students take at least one quantitative/qualitative research methods course.
San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA)
Students studying in the Equity and Social Justice Education MA program learn about culture, language, race, ethnicity, ability, and gender diversity in education. Theoretical, historical, and political perspectives as they relate to education are the focus. Social activism is also a large part of the program. Students will learn interactive pedagogies and teaching philosophies using critical thinking, demonstrations, simulations, and more.
To complete the degree, students must take 18 credits of Core courses, 3 credits of Research Methods, 6 credits of Electives, and 3 credits of a “Culminating Experience,” which is either a Master’s thesis or a field study. The program does not provide a teaching credential.
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
Taken through the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, the MA of Public Administration allows students to take courses from across the campus. The Human Rights and Social Justice concentration focuses on human rights and the policies that expand human rights. Students studying this concentration also analyze political and economic barriers that block progress and prevent social justice from becoming a reality. Representative employers (full-time and internships) include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, China Labor Watch, and more.
Students take 9 courses in Foundational Coursework, 5 courses in the Human Rights and Social Justice concentration, and a one-credit Colloquium course every semester. Students are also expected to participate in practical work experience, which can include internships, off-campus study/externship, or a graduate certificate program. Because analysis and written communication are essential to public affairs, students also have opportunities for a capstone project, a professional report, and a thesis.
Harvard Division of Continuing Education
The Harvard Division of Continuing Education is a division of the University dedicated to programs and unique online teachings for high school students, professionals, and distance learners. Students who choose an Undergraduate or Graduate Certificate in Social Justice examine both theoretical and practical questions of social, political, and economic rights. They’ll learn about core themes of social justice through areas like the environment, politics, religion, law, and more. Upon completion of the certificate, students will have valuable insight into policy, principles of social justice, and social justice issues.
To earn the certificate, students will need to complete four certificate courses for graduate credit and earn at least a B-grade in each course. The courses must be completed within three years. The graduate certificate in social justice requires 16 credits or four courses. A social justice foundational course is required along with three electives.