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What Sets a University–and Its Public Policy/Public Administration Program–Apart?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Kaitlin McCullough
February 23, 2019

After having attended almost 20 college tours, my mom and I joke that we could confidently get up on stage at the next one and give the introductory speech ourselves. All colleges and universities have the same basic format: They’re scholarly, with engaged students, dedicated faculty and endless opportunities. But what sets them apart from the rest? How can schools draw in the prospective students they want and not get lost in the expansive list of over 5,000 universities in the nation?

In order to appropriately answer that question, we must begin by exploring what high school seniors are looking for in their college search process. For me, I was looking at two very disparate and distinct career paths. On one hand, public policy and lobbying has always pulled at me. There is no other career that directly impacts such a widespread amount of the population, and the intricacy and skill required to negotiate and successfully advocate for policy is impressive. On the other hand, since I was young, I’ve wanted to do something in medicine. Biology and chemistry are two of my favorite subjects, and every class I’ve taken in the science field has intrigued me and encouraged me to do my own research outside of the course. Both options are incredibly appealing, and I’ve been looking for a college program that uniquely inspires me or pushes me towards a specific career. From universities in Virginia and Washington, D.C., to those in Texas and Florida, different schools cater to different types of students.

When we consider universities providing public policy, public administration and government tracks, there are many factors that can set a school apart. While this list is not exhaustive, below I offer some of my primary considerations as I debate which university to attend.

Schools with proximity to the D.C. metro area and/or their state capitols have a unique set of qualities that draw students to their campuses. This type of location means that students have a leg up in their ability to access opportunities in the government, and the majority of schools in these areas emphasize internships and mentorships in the government. They may seek to unite their students with state or federal government agencies. This hands-on involvement that enables students to gain experience before graduating will draw students that are interested in the political field. One of the benefits that comes directly from pushing students to engage with the public sector and government agencies are the relationships and recognition that follow as most jobs, even supposedly entry-level ones, require some form of previous experience.

Another one of the greatest strengths many universities can bring to the table is a star-studded faculty. Providing students with leaders and policy Goliaths inspire potential students and encourage them to learn more about a college program. However, while an impressive professor list is always attractive, not all colleges will have nationally-recognized faculty members. Also of importance is the extent to which faculty demonstrate their commitment to students, and the ways in which they engage students inside and outside the classroom. By showing students that they are truly invested in student success, faculty members can help set their university apart.

The final recommendation that I would give to universities and colleges seeking to recruit more students would be to incorporate more interdisciplinary courses into their curriculum. While I will eventually have to choose between government and medicine, finding a way to hybridize those interests is engaging. Creating more free form and student-driven classes that encourage enrollees to explore topics that interest them will draw intellectually driven and passionate students, and give any college or university a leg up. One interesting idea that I learned about on a college tour was an almost entirely student-led course, where students would select a topic that they are passionate about, seek out an internship in that field, and conduct their own research-be that lobbying or whatever form it took-and the result would be something tangible that the student created. While this type of class has not yet come to fruition, several of the professors that I spoke with seemed excited by the possibility, and that sort of program quickly distinguishes any college from the rest.

Colleges and universities must find a way to engage prospective students and to allow their strengths to shine. Policy-leaning students are already interested in changing things to further this great nation and create a continuingly more perfect union. They just need someplace to call home.


Author: Kaitlin McCullough is a senior at Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia. She is currently interning at the VCU Wilder School Center for Public Policy, and looks forward to engaging more with politics as part of her career in the future.

The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy embodies our mission to advance research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, our units provide diverse public-facing services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and the general public, across Virginia and beyond.

Twitter: @CPPatVCU

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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