Price students go beyond classroom to tackle real-world issues
By Cristy Lytal
During the 2014 Policy Analysis Practicum, USC Master of Public Policy (MPP) students served as consultants for high-profile clients on real-world issues. Working in groups, students gained practical consulting experience in policy analysis, working collaboratively in small teams to conduct research on an important policy issue and identify policy opportunities on behalf of their client.
“The goal of the Practicum is to give our clients something that they can use,” said Professor Gary Painter, director of graduate programs in public policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
The array of projects that students created during this year’s Practicum has shown both the range of real world policy issues our world faces and the innovative approaches that MPP students found to help address many of them.
Paving the path to cleaner fuels
One group of students worked to implement a program that would reflect the transition from gasoline to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which alternative energies like electric cars use to measure efficiency.
The California Chamber of Commerce website as well as the popular politics and business blog Fox & Hounds featured posts about one group’s analysis of how increased fuel efficiency might necessitate the transition from a gasoline tax to a fee on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as a way to fund the state’s roads and infrastructure.
“Though several studies have shown the technical and fiscal feasibility of using a mileage-based fee, few studies have examined the idea of implementing a VMT program in California,” wrote client Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, a think tank affiliated with the California Chamber of Commerce. “The California Foundation for Commerce and Education was fortunate to be able to join forces with the Graduate Practicum at the USC Price School of Public Policy to develop a report on this potential new revenue source.”
The study was also referenced in a recent Sacramento Bee column.
Integrating military women into direct combat
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was similarly approving of another student group’s evaluation of the progress of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in integrating women into direct combat positions.
“We got a memo from one of the clients in the General Accounting Office saying how excellent they thought that report was and how appreciative they were of the students doing the work and helping,” said Professor Daniel Mazmanian, who co-teaches the practicum course with Painter. “When clients say this is valuable, that’s the litmus test.”
Client Foster Kerrison, senior policy analyst at GAO and USC Price alumnus, explained that the National Defense Authorization Act for this coming year might require a GAO review of the women in combat issue, and the students’ work is “already being used in terms of helping us to know the landscape of issues associated with this topic.”
Kerrison added, “A lot of people said the students were just very polished and assured in how they presented the information, and I totally would agree with that assessment.”
Student Joshua Pynoos and his team found the experience of working with GAO equally rewarding.
“That was definitely a crash course in learning about the military,” he said. “It was valuable to do policy analysis in an area that we don’t have experience in, because it makes us better writers and gets us to see issues that we wouldn’t normally see.”
His fellow group member Rebecca Gross added, “I don’t think any of us necessarily want to pursue military policy per se, but all the skills we learned are things that we’ll take with us in our future jobs.”
Increasing healthy food access in LA
The students who consulted for the California State Treasurer’s Office worked on another relevant and timely project: an analysis of increasing healthy food access in Los Angeles County through corner store conversions.
“It ended up being very practical and hands on as opposed to just theoretical,” said student Lilian Conover.
While conducting in-person interviews with corner store owners, the student group learned to expect the unexpected, ranging from language barriers to lack of cooperation.
“In terms of skills that I learned throughout the entire academic year, it was really about having to readapt and having a plan B and even a plan C or D sometimes, and understanding that that’s okay, and that’s what’s going to happen,” said group member Stephanie Gomez.
Group member Christian Cambridge remarked on “the difference between researching behind the computer as compared to actually being out in the community and seeing the issue firsthand.”
Group member Paul Chung agreed: “When we go into more of a professional setting, not every time everything’s going to be in a very clean Excel spreadsheet.”
Najia Rosales, acting executive director of the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative Council in California State Treasurer’s Office, complimented the students’ enthusiasm and willingness to go with the flow.
“It’s always good to get a fresh perspective on a different age group,” she said, “because I find that people that are in a certain age group or going to school have a quicker way to look at things in terms of being more dynamic, more adaptable.”
Bringing public spaces to urban areas
Darryl Ford – management analyst in the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ Planning, Construction, and Maintenance Branch – also gained a fresh perspective from the students’ analysis of the 50 Parks Initiative, which brings new public spaces to underserved neighborhoods.
“It was good to get a set of eyes on the project that had no familiarity with it and essentially no stake in what we’d done, so an independent voice,” said Ford. “The students were able to look at the project from truly a research perspective and look at whether there was data to support some our ‘gut reaction outcomes.’ So it was very helpful.”
The students appreciated the chance to evaluate the 50 Parks Initiative over a sustained period of time for their client the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, which works closely with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a longer project in particular over the course of the year for a client, and our client was great,” said student Katelyn Leenhouts.
Developing safer neighborhoods
The Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles asked students to analyze their organization’s unique contribution to the community—local elementary school peer mediation programs, funded by USC Good Neighbors grants.
Group member Raven Jackson called it “very rewarding to actually work on a project that aligned with my professional goals.”
She noted how her fellow group members share her interest in social policy and education policy. “It’s very important to society to have both of those policies be equitable, and I plan to work in those sectors creating and reforming those policies. It’s a passion of mine.”
Avis Ridley-Thomas, co-director of the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, commented on how much fun it was to work with the students. “They always come with their beautiful perspective and their life experiences,” she said. “I love having students around me, and especially under the guidance of wonderfully talented adults.”
Jill Frank, program manager at the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, added that the students’ report is “very helpful in terms of not only giving an internal analysis of what we’re doing and how we’re delivering the program, but also giving an objective opportunity to the funder to look at what the success is of this program and what the challenges are of delivering it.”
Making housing affordable for all
Another nonprofit client, Price Charities, valued the students’ analysis of the impact of two high-quality but affordable apartment buildings that their organization developed in the culturally diverse City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.
“The students’ research and recommendations have provided us with really valuable insights and information that we can use in our decision making on redevelopment issues,” said Becky Modesto, director of university relations for Price Charities. “So we really appreciate that partnership and the insight that they bring to us.”
Matthew Hervey from Price Charities Community Development added: “The research and the theoretical development of ideas will oftentimes start in that classroom or university setting. So to have the students be able to bring those ideas to us and share them with us and feed us in terms of our own thought process is very invigorating. It’s helpful for us to see things in a new way that improves the end product that we try to deliver to this community.”
Student Fatima Capinpin underscored the value of collaborating with her group on the project. “Just the process of working in a team is not only a good school educational experience but also a good lesson for future work experience,” she said. “We were tasked to work together consistently and regularly, and to smooth out any challenges in order to reach this unified goal of providing a good product to our client.”
Learning about international policy at the United Nations
Another group analyzed the Millennium Development Goals for the United Nations’ Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM). According to student Heidi Greenhalgh, “one of the greatest skills that we gained as a team was actually learning how to work with such a large project, narrowing it down and assigning it, learning to work with people’s best attributes and applying that evenly throughout the group.”
Through the practicum, students were able to gain valuable professional experience in the international policy arena.
“During this process, we got to travel to the United Nations, and we met with all the different divisions,” she said. “We were able to actually publish a paper jointly with one of the professors, Frank Zerunyan.”
As chief of the DPADM Public Administration Capacity Branch in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, John-Mary Kauzya graciously pointed out that the students contributed to creating their own positive experience — as did USC.
“They did impressive work, and they are a very serious and focused group,” he said. “I remember telling them that the university is doing them a very good service to expose them to this kind of work, which involves this level of professionalism and research.”
The 2014 USC Price student projects were:
“Incorporating Race into the Plan for a Healthy L.A.”
Client: The City Project
Students: Liana Elliott, Yolanda De La Paz, Julia Johnson and Erica Liepmann
“Transitioning From the Gasoline Tax to a Fee on Vehicle Miles Traveled”
Client: California Foundation for Commerce and Education (affiliated with the California Chamber of Commerce)
Students: Jeffrey Khau, Stephen Michael II, Lili Sun and Peilin Yuan
“CalVet Home Loans Program: An Independent Program Evaluation”
Client: California Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government
Students: Yuanqing Cao, Johnson Jung, Terri Pohl and Caroline Stevens
“Increasing Healthy Food Access in Los Angeles County: An Analysis of Corner Store Conversions and Lessons for Statewide Investment”
Client: California State Treasurer’s Office
Students: Christian Cambridge, Paul Chung, Lilian Conover and Stephanie Gomez
“The Naturalization of U.S.-Born Children in Mexico: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Current and Prospective Practices”
Students: Alexander Becker, Jennifer Moore, Brianna Pierce and Emily Reisner
“Plan Colombia Implementation Evaluation”
Client: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Students: Kelley Groves, Kate Miller, Yehudit Schutzman, Kele Song and Connie Su
“Women in Combat: Analysis of U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Integration of Women into Direct Combat Positions”
Client: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Students: Rebecca Gross, Katherine Lu, Elizabeth Newman and Josh Pynoos
“A Case Study of City-Level Cap-And-Trade”
Client: ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability
Students: Loren Holzem, Karisa Katsuki, Gregory Mayer and Xiuzhi Wang
“Evaluation of the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles’ Peer Mediation Program at USC Good Neighbor Schools”
Client: Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles
Students: Raven Jackson, Meghan Swanson, Justin Tandingan and Anastasia Tarpeh
“Optimizing Collision Response and Resources Allocation”
Client: Los Angeles Police Department
Students: Charles Bennett, Ryan Cassutt, Di Gao and Xiao Lu
“A Study of the 50 Parks Initiative”
Client: Los Angeles Parks Foundation
Students: Patrick Ferguson, Xiangyi Jing, Katelyn Leenhouts and Hannah Woo
“Oak View Renewal Partnership: Hub Microfinance Institute Economic Feasibility Study”
Client: Oak View
Students: Kathleen Gregg, Rhett-Alexander Paranay, Chenjing Wang and Hua Zhong
“Health Benefits of Biologically Corrected LED Light Bulbs”
Client: Pegasus Capital
Students: Maribel Garcia, Hovanes Gasparian, Aalok Mehta and Shan Zong
“Price Charities Impact Study: Assessing the Impact of Affordable Rental Housing on Neighboring Apartment Buildings”
Client: Price Charities
Students: Fatima Capinpin, Joseph Ferrell, Peishan Li and Yinqi Zhang
“Assessing the Mobile Food Vending Industry’s Impact on the Los Angeles Economy”
Client: Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association (SCMFVA)
Students: Bo Gao, Marilu Guzman, Shilpika Lahri and Yaquan Liu
“An Exploration of the Implementation and Sustainability of Urban Area Policies Aimed at Millennium Development Goals #1 and #7”
Client: United Nations, Division for Public Administration and Development Management
Students: Marvin Heng Cong, Heidi Greenhalgh, Heyang Liu, Nicholas Perry and Yao Zhang
“Residential Churn: Demographic Changes and Housing Demand”
Client: The Urban Institute
Students: Heain Lee, Benjamin Robinson, Hanchen Wang and Kang Yu Canning Zou