New Program Prepares Undergraduates for Careers in Policy Analytics

The inaugural class of the Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) program, a joint degree offered by the Harris School of Public Policy and the University of Chicago Department of Computer Science, graduates in June. They have worked on technology and data projects with partners like the City of Chicago, the Knight Lab and Exelon, and they will go on to work for organizations like the Federal Reserve Bank and Civis Analytics, serving in such roles as chief information officer and chief technical officer for public and private employers.

Based on student demand for the two-year-old program, not to mention employer demand that has outstripped the supply of new hires, Harris and the computer science department have extended the opportunity to University of Chicago undergraduates through a five-year joint degree program called BA/MSCAPP. Providing a unique focus on the intersection between policy analysis and computer science, the degree is designed to prepare graduates for the increasingly data-driven world of government decision-making.

“This is something I felt, strategically, was incredibly important for the school to execute. It was something I wanted to spur quickly and make a reality this year,” says Jeremy Edwards, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs at Harris. As with the original launch of the master’s-only program, he says, “It is very clear. It is imperative that policy leaders of the future understand the importance that data science plays in informing good policy.”

Harris saw an enormous gap in the policy-making environment for people who understood how to synthesize and mine data, while computer scientists typically lacked a sophisticated understanding of policy-making, Edwards says. “There is a clear skill gap in the labor market, and this is designed to fill it,” he says. 

The combination will give students the ability to manage data-driven conversations, says Maggie King, program director of CAPP.

Both Harris and the computer science department also liked the idea of retaining University of Chicago undergraduates, Edwards says. “They understand our intellectual culture, they understand how to perform in the classroom,” he says. And when he found out that 23 percent of the incoming freshman class indicated an interest in public policy, based on a university survey, he realized “we need to think quickly and design an attractive pipeline for undergraduates to join the Harris School.”

Another motivator: employer demand for computer and coding skills. “This is no longer a nice-to-have in hiring talent. Students today must have these skills,” Edwards says. “We felt this was the right time. We needed to do it now, or we would be too late to the game.” Although most students hail from the later years of the Millennial generation and already have at least some computer skills, he adds, “We wanted to make certain that graduates enter the market with formal training driven by rigor.”

Although government agencies are certainly a prime target for such students, private companies will need them as well, especially tech companies, Edwards says. “These organizations are being forced to respond to new policy and regulatory influences as it relates to data security, privacy and so on,” he says. “There is a serious knowledge gap that exists – these students will fill it.”

As with the MSCAPP, the new program features a core curriculum that combines courses from Harris and the computer science department. The Harris piece provides a foundation in critical analysis with courses in program evaluation, organizational theory, political economy, econometrics, statistics and more. The computer science department brings computer programming, data analytics, machine learning and database management.

The BA/MSCAPP opens this fall and enrollment is ongoing. (Interested students can apply here.) Program leaders emphasize they are interested in undergraduates in all disciplines, and no prior formal computer science or coding training is necessary. An information session will be held on Monday, May 9, at 4:30 p.m. in Ryerson 255. 

Ed Finkel