Policy students turn classroom knowledge into practical solutions
The 2013 Policy Analysis Practicum gave USC’s Master of Public Policy students the opportunity to serve as consultants on complex, real-life projects for high-profile clients from across the public and nonprofit sectors.
Students worked with government clients, including the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Research Bureau and the Little Hoover Commission. They also worked with nonprofit clients, such as Price Charities, the Child Welfare Initiative, Community Health Councils Inc., the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Smart Growth America and Consejo Consultivo del Agua.
Christopher Weare, research associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, who co-teaches the course, noted how the students applied a range of new methodologies to their projects, extending far beyond what they had learned in their formal coursework.
“What is particularly impressive about these practicum projects is understanding the breadth and flexibility of the students’ analytic capabilities when they’ve gone through this program,” he said. “It both stretches the students and shows their ability to do the analysis that’s most appropriate for any particular problem.”
The students credited both their clients and USC Price with giving them the space to operate as real-world professionals.
“My anticipation for the practicum in general was thinking that all clients were going to have a very hands-on approach,” said Catherine Omalev, whose student group examined public safety realignment for the Little Hoover Commission. “But that wasn’t the case with many of the projects, and that was a great thing — that definitely brought freedom and ownership to our project as well.”
Omalev and fellow students Aubrey Farkas, Carl Svensson and Kimberly Bailey evaluated Assembly Bill 109, the October 2011 legislation that shifted the responsibility of low-level offenders from California state prisons to county jails. The group discovered that counties received grants of varying sizes to accommodate the influx of inmates. However, the funding formula didn’t account for a county jail’s capacity, fiscal ability or level of support from community-based organizations.
Another group of students tackled an equally vexing social problem for the Child Welfare Initiative. Denesa Moore, Gwendolyn Forrest, Hanyu Xue and Lacy Kuester identified model practices and approaches to help the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services and other interested parties address barriers to foster youth employment.
“Foster youth fare worse than nonfoster youth peers across the board,” Moore said. “So they have lower high school graduation rates, higher unemployment rates, and higher arrest and incarceration rates. You see it all. This is why Child Welfare Initiative really asked us to do this — to try to mitigate the unemployment rate.”
At the request of the Congressional Research Service, another student group concentrated on a very different employment-related issue: policymaking about people’s retirement savings decisions.
Retirement savings plan participants face a daunting array of decisions.
“The first is whether or not to participate and, if they participate, how much to contribute to the plan and how to invest those contributions,” said Alice Ip, who worked with fellow students Beatrice Fuchs, Colleen McKinney, Orkun Erkus and Peter Thomas. “And finally, when they retire, they have to decide how they will withdraw the value of their account balance.”
In the face of such complexity and ambiguity, people often avoid making any decisions at all. So the group found that options such as targeted auto-enrollment in retirement savings plans can encourage better preparation for retirement.
Some of the students’ research is well on its way to being put into practice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 9 asked a student group to study the reasons why many industrial facilities, such as auto wrecking yards and recycling plants, don’t obtain the proper storm water permits, which regulate the discharge of pollutants into bodies of water.
“The rate of nonfiling is still very high, at least 50 percent by most estimates,” said Oswin Chan, whose student group included Lisa Rakha Goldstein, Stephan Noori and Ying Jia Huang. “The regulatory environment provides little to no incentive for facilities to file.
The EPA suspected that excessive permitting fees might be the main disincentive to compliance, but the students discovered a much more complex situation. Given that there are no inspection programs focused on nonfilers and no immediate penalties for being unpermitted, there are no real negative consequences to being out-of-compliance. In contrast, compliance is expensive, inconvenient and even risky since it makes the permitted facility more likely to incur legal action by environmental groups.
Client David Smith shared these results at a national meeting of the water permitting branch chiefs.
“I was impressed by the students’ level of thinking on it,” Smith said.
“Policy analysis research is actually something we need help on, and this is a new way for us to get some of those needs filled,” he added. “And doing projects like this is a way for students to get their head in the door a little bit … it’s a win-win.”
Another win-win occurred when Price Charities asked a group to explore the issue of creating new park space in the San Diego neighborhood of City Heights.
“Our research showed that community engagement is really the driving force behind our parks,” said Ashley Downend, who collaborated with Alexandra Ferguson, Dominique Clark and Rachel Lipton.
The students also revealed the recreational, social, economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits of providing more park space. And when it came to recommending potential locations for a skate park, the students’ research actually validated some of the land acquisition decisions that Price Charities had already made.
“Their findings aligned with some of our thoughts of which corner we were looking at, so that was a good confirmation,” said Becky Modesto, director of university relations for Price Charities. “And the students were wonderful. Their presentation was really professional.”
Matthew Hervey, executive director of Price Charities, added, “From our perspective, doing everything we could to improve the experience of the student and the learning process was our focus. To get anything meaningful in addition to that was like whipped cream and a cherry on top.
“From the oral presentation, the slide presentation, we very much received quite a bit of information that is that whipped cream and cherry on top,” Hervey noted. “So there’s definitely a positive on both sides.”
In addition, through the experience of serving as real-life consultants, students not only acquired key lessons, but they also encountered difficult challenges from the professional world — for example, employees leave their jobs, organizational priorities shift and information isn’t always accessible.
“Part of the value of the practicum is that it does often emulate what happens in a career, which is that unexpected things happen, and one has to be able to adjust accordingly,” said Juliet Musso, Houston Flournoy Professor of State Government, who co-teaches the course. “The students were very professional and really hard-working and creative in the way that they adjusted to these kinds of challenges.”