Award-winning MPA capstone helps middle school career program secure funding, expand to more states

July 28, 2018

By Matthew Kredell


For USC Price School of Public Policy students Annalee Habstritt, Peter Hach, John McMannis and Stacie Mills, their Master of Public Administration capstone project – exploring the emerging field of middle school career expo programs – was an opportunity to make a tangible social contribution.

“It was a topic we really cared about, and it seemed like something that could make a difference in someone’s life,” Habstritt said.

The four students – all from USC Price’s online MPA program – authored a 167-page report, which employed a mixed-methods approach to summarize the qualities of career expo programs targeted at middle school students nationwide, determine a common set of emerging practices in the field and then identify the best performance measures to quantify effectiveness. The group’s work earned them the Haynes Award in recognition of the most outstanding MPA capstone project.

The client for the project was Pathways2Possibilities (P2P), which runs career expos for eighth graders and at-risk youth, ages 16 to 24, in Mississippi.

P2P Co-Director Paige Roberts started the organization while she was an MPA student at USC Price. It was her own experience from going through the capstone project, and seeing the quality of work from her classmates, that gave her the idea of approaching the Price School with the possibility of having a capstone researching career expos nationwide.

Research with results

Roberts explained that P2P’s funding from the state of Mississippi increased 50 percent – to $150,000 – this year, and she thinks the capstone played a key role in getting that additional funding from the Mississippi state legislature.

“The quality of the report the capstone team gave us was so good that it helped [provide us the data] to then convince the legislature to increase our funding,” Roberts said. “When we showed the report to some of our workforce and education partners in the state of Mississippi, they were all very impressed with the recommendations.”

Roberts also noted that the research has been helpful as P2P seeks funding to expand into other states. The report was used in the organization’s expansion into South Carolina and Alabama.

“We were all passionate about this idea of building brighter futures for the youth, and I think that passion comes through in the work,” Habstritt said. “What P2P is doing is trying to provide opportunities for all students, not just in a certain area or demographic or socioeconomic place. We thought about all the coursework we’ve done and really tried to apply that academic theory to the problem.”

In their capstone report, the students made four recommendations:

  • Design an educator’s toolkit for teachers to integrate pre- and post-expo touchpoints into class.
  • Maximize stakeholder engagement with the creation of a P2P advisory board.
  • Employ a multi-phased approach to integrate performance indicators into program evaluation.
  • Form a community of practice for similar organizations interested identifying emerging practices, addressing common challenges and sharing resources.

“The students developed and delivered an outstanding product that provided the client a tool box for them to pull from in furthering their mission,” said John Calanni, USC Price adjunct associate professor who served as the faculty lead for the project. “Academically, it was such a good report because of the outstanding methodological approaches and professional-looking deliverables that were clear, and easy to understand and implement.”