January 2017 | Thinking about Undergraduate Education in Public Affairs, By Mary K. Feeney*

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

Public affairs programs across the country are developing undergraduate certificates, concentrations, minors, and majors in public administration, affairs, policy, and service. Some view this as an opportunity to expand programming and resources while, for others, it is another challenge in an environment of tightened budgets, expanded administration, and increased pressure to do more with less. Undergraduate programming offers a number of opportunities for our traditional graduate programs and students. Here, I outline some of the challenges and opportunities we face as we work to develop top-notch undergraduate programs that advance public service.

What We Gain from Undergraduate Programs

Universities and departments approach undergraduate degree programs with different needs and expectations. Especially for public universities, there is a need to generate revenue and students in seats translate to revenue. The second, and potentially bigger pay off is a pipeline to graduate programs – enabling us to attract students from a variety of undergraduate majors to public service. Third, we have the opportunity to engage the community in ways that are not done by traditional political science programs. Fourth, undergraduate programs are an opportunity for PhD students to get needed teaching experience, ideally with the guidance of a knowledgeable advisor. Finally, and possibly most important, undergraduate programs are a mechanism to effectively train citizens for the future – best fulfilling our public service missions.

What Undergraduates Gain from Us

Our jobs ask us to prepare young adults to be thoughtful employees and citizens, preparing them to think critically, analyze evidence, engage stakeholders, and solve public problems. Modern students must develop the savvy to consume a variety of media, parse out legitimate information, and use evidence based arguments as they engage in public service. It is our job to teach within a framework of public service, helping students understand how the world works around them, e.g. how policy is made and the many factors that shape it, how change or stagnation occurs, and how government works or doesn’t. Undergraduates need us to prepare them for a life of public-minded service in complex, interconnected private, nonprofit, and public organizations that shape the public sphere.

The Challenge

 Many of us were not trained to interact with and teach undergraduates, let alone develop stand-alone undergraduate programs. In fact, many of us have been teaching graduate courses such as public and nonprofit management, statistical methods, and program evaluation, which do not translate easily to undergraduates. We face a few challenges when developing public affairs undergraduate programs:

(1) Differentiate from our graduate programs. The BA/BS is not the same as a graduate degree in a professional field. Undergraduate programs should not mimic the graduate curriculum, serving as an MPA- or MPP-lite. Rather, they should be introductory, liberal arts degrees in public affairs. That means teaching citizenship, public engagement, policy and public affairs (via the public, nonprofit, and private sectors), logic, and other key components to prepare students for a life of civic engagement and public service.

(2) Differentiate from political science programs. In order to prepare undergraduates for a life of public service, we need to teach American government. However, we should be using American government as the basis for a more applied education in public service. Offering students an introduction to how government sets the stage for complex policy making, careers in public administration, and action in civil society.

(3) Stimulate interest in public administration, policy, and service. I view my job, when teaching undergraduates, as inspiring them toward public service – be that in the private, public, or nonprofit sector. Most of the undergraduate students I encounter want to change the world; make it a better place. They are empathetic, kind, tolerant, and well prepared to navigate a diverse work place and society. What they lack is know how. They often have simplistic views of how policy is made, who holds power, and how to effect policy change. Moreover, they are not adequately prepared to sort through opinion, evidence, and “alternative facts”. Through liberal arts training and experiential learning, we have an opportunity to better prepare them to be the change they want to be. We can help them understand the complexity of policy-making and the hard work that will be required to bring the change they seek. If ending homelessness were easy, we would have done it already. But it’s not easy. And the best part of our job is imparting a bit of knowledge and skill to a large group of energetic young people who can chip away at the big challenges our society faces.

*Associate Professor and Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public Affairs | School of Public Affairs | Arizona State University

Email: mkfeeney@asu.edu

Twitter: @mkfeeneyASU

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