By Melinda Rogers
Two University of Utah students’ policy proposals to change the United States’ higher education gap between the country and other wealthy democracies earned top place honors at a recent competition in Washington, D.C.
Graduate students Fatema Ahad and Annette Harris, both students in the Master of Public Policy program, were challenged to propose policy solutions for the lagging rate of college completion in the U.S. as part of the 2016 Policy Solutions Challenge. At the event, teams provide 15-minute presentations outlining policy solutions to a public issue. A panel of professional policy analysts question the students about their proposal and winners are determined after presentations are scored.
Ahad and Harris earned impressive reviews for their proposed solutions. They also earned the third straight championship for the University of Utah at a national policy solutions competition. To qualify for the national competition, students began with two preliminary rounds, both involving the electronic submission of memos for judging by professional policy analysts in Washington, D.C. Those who earned qualifying scores were invited to compete in the national finals in person earlier this spring.
Beth Henke, program manager for the MPP program, said the U has established itself as a top institution of public policy and the U’s record on winning several national championships at the Policy Solutions Challenge competition is proof of the strong academic program and skills students gain.
“I will say that the constant feedback our last three winning teams have received from the judges at the national competitions on why their research stands out is due to its multidisciplinary nature. Our program is somewhat unique in that students take classes in a number of different disciplines and learn to look at problems from a number of different angles. Most traditional policy programs teach all of their courses out of one department. Our students pick electives from all over campus, providing them with the best experts the area has to offer. I think this is what has allowed us to take top prize in the past three years on such diverse topics as employment for younger workers, drinking water supply and increasing the national rate of college completion,” said Henke.
“The three-peat is such an unprecedented achievement because it requires one program to be able to create innovative solutions to vastly different social problems. It requires a creativity and fluidity in problem solving that will allow our graduates to serve our country well as they tackle finding public policy solutions to issues facing our nation.”
Ahad and Harris recently spoke to @TheU about the competition and how it fit into their broader academic goals.
Q: Tell us about yourself. What are you studying at the U? What led you to choose your major?
Ahad: I am an international student (from Bangladesh) at the U. I am working in International Student & Scholar Services under the Office for Global Engagement as a graduate assistant. I am currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy. I chose this program as I am passionate about public policies and fascinated by how this can have real impacts on people’s lives.
Harris: I currently work as the operations manager of refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services where we resettle approximately 1,100 refugees annually from countries including Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria, Burma, Burundi, Sudan and many others. I am finishing my first year of a Master of Public Policy and Master of Public Health joint degree. I chose the combination of public health and public policy because I love the combination of social science and analytical science in each field and I fee that Health Policy is the main domestic policy issue of my generation and I hope to build a career working on it.
Q: You recently competed at the National Policy Solutions Challenge. What was the experience like for you?
Ahad: The experience was fantastic! This was a happy glimpse of what I want to do in the future. I learned a great deal about the problem and I believe this is a high priority issue for the U.S. policymakers. For the competition, we had to dive deep into the problem to define it, figure out some of the root causes, come up with policy alternatives that will address these issues, conduct cost-effectiveness analyses for the alternatives and finally, had to present it in front of the judges and audience. This was a great learning experience. We had to put in additional hours to prepare for this competition while we were enrolled for full time classes, but at the end of the day, it was worth it.
Harris: The National Policy Solution’s Challenge was a great experience. I loved learning from and working with my teammate Fatema, whose attention to detail and expertise in data analysis make her a role model for my own academic future. It was illuminating to experience the fast paced nature of the competition, with major policy memos due with very quick turn around — the months spanning the competition where punctuated with many all-nighters. It was also wonderful to be in D.C., to meet the judges and to learn more about career opportunities in the policy field that I had never considered before.
Q: What were some of the surprising things that you learned in your research as part of the challenge — students were focused on these issues, but why do you think what the competition focused on is something the general public should also be paying attention to right now?
Ahad: One of the biggest reason was that the U.S. college completion rate consistently falls behind other countries. In a 2012 report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 14th in the world in the percentage (42 percent) of 25-34 year olds with post-secondary education. Also, approximately 40 million Americans hold student debt. This number is actually greater than the entire population of Canada, Poland, Australia and most of the other countries in the world. Seven million students are in student loan default. There is an upward trend in the average amount of debt over time as well as the percentage of students taking on debt.
Students who complete college take longer than needed. It has become a new norm for the students to take six years, on an average, to complete a bachelor’s degree. Surprisingly, six years rather than four are measured towards on time completion, even by the government, such as the Department of Education.
Harris: I was surprised to learn the large percentage of students who don’t complete their four year degrees was so high — an estimated 60 percent of university students fall under the categories of “non-completion or untimely completion.” I was also surprised at the class effects with those students from the lowest income quartiles falling significantly below others in college graduation.
Q: How has your time at the U — classes, professors, other experiences —helped to prepare you for competing in competitions such as the National Policy Solutions Challenge?
Ahad: Classes in this program were extremely helpful as I acquired relevant knowledge and skills from the classes I took prior to this competition. For instance, I learned about policy analysis, research design, best practices of research and cost-effectiveness analysis exercises from the core classes of the program. Every class I took my professors were there to inspire me. Every time I felt the pressure of grad school, they got me going. They not only helped me achieve academic excellence but also motivated me to take on future challenges. I am very grateful to all of my faculty to help me learn and grow.
For this competition I would like to take this opportunity to thank, professor Lina Svedin who was our faculty advisor and without whom we could not have achieved this. Also, thanks to professor Morgan Lyon Cotti for guiding us at the finals.
Harris: Faculty mentors who were willing to take the time to counsel us and problem solve with us throughout the experience were incredible. We had the tools and expertise we needed to succeed from our coursework, and they were able to answer our questions all along the way.
Q: What’s next for you? What are your future goals following graduation?
Ahad: I am graduating this summer. The goal would be to work with an organization as a policy analyst. I am passionate about social policy. I would love to work on topics like gender inequality, foreign policy and policies affecting children, women and minorities. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure I contribute to the progress towards betterment of the society in a positive and meaningful way.
Harris: I hope to build a career working on health policy either at the state or federal level with a particular interest in the intersection between refugee services and health policy. If I don’t stay in Utah, my goal is work in Washington, D.C. or Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Melinda Rogers is a communications specialist at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at email@example.com.