Students Step into Consulting through Policy Labs

Three groups of second-year Chicago Harris students are gathered in a classroom to rehearse presentations that will be delivered to officials at the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (IDFPR) the following week.

One group is exploring the pros and cons of licensing music therapists. The second is looking at reducing barriers to licenses for those with criminal records or student loan defaults, and the third is examining the state’s licensing requirements for professionals moving to Illinois from other states.

Senior Lecturer Paula Worthington politely interrupts a student with a suggestion to revise one of the graphs, and to clearly define the term “good moral character.” At another point, she challenges the group “to tease out the two or three things you want to say. Where does this data take you?” When her timer buzzes, she asks, “What else were we hoping to cover?”

Nine days later, when they arrive at the James R. Thompson Center to make their presentation, the students have fine-tuned their work in a number of ways. The music therapy group has refocused one of its arguments to make it easier to understand, while the students in the interstate mobility group—which used the pharmacy profession as a point of entry to undertake its exploration—have punched up their charts and graphs and edited material to stay within time limits.


The students’ work for the IDFPR is hardly the first outside consulting project Harris students have undertaken, but in the past such efforts have been largely one-off applied learning experiences. That began to change three years ago, when the school entered an ongoing partnership with the City of Gary, Ind., to assist with its redevelopment efforts. 

The IDFPR work and three similar projects for other clients in the Winter Quarter kicked off an exciting new program called Harris Policy Labs. An experiential learning initiative that helps bolster the bridge from graduate school to professional success, Policy Labs brings together faculty and practitioners to guide students as they help solve public policy challenges for outside clients. Most, but not all, participants will be Harris students; the Winter Quarter groups included peers from the School of Social Service Administration, the Law School and Chicago Booth. 

Other clients for the Winter Quarter included the Illinois Department of Human Services, which tasked students with exploring how to improve data-driven and evidence-based decision-making at a time of declining budgets; a consortium led by the Civic Consulting Alliance that includes the Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which asked for help in figuring out how to reduce incarceration rates; and UChicago Hospitals, which asked students to help assess and strengthen the impact of a new model for delivering comprehensive patient care. The projects are ongoing, with all four labs extending their work into the Spring Quarter—and, perhaps, beyond.

“In general, you can’t resolve a policy issue in a 10-week academic quarter,” says Carol Brown, executive director of the Policy Labs. “Next year, we might have the same clients and different projects, or some projects may build on projects from this year, like the Gary projects have. We’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Worthington, who serves as academic director for the effort, says that the overall goal “is to increase and improve opportunities for students to get professional experience in a structured and supported environment. They’ll get experience working on small teams doing projects intended to serve the needs of clients.”

The students agreed that the experience could prove valuable in a variety of professional contexts. 

Tess Eckstein, who hopes to become a state-level lobbyist, says her work with the interstate mobility team gave her “a better perspective on state regulatory processes,” which will “help me understand better how to represent my future clients.”

Xin Jin, one of several international students in the lab, echoes the thoughts of others when she says that the project provided valuable insights into the workings of American government. “I really wanted to get more hands-on experience in nonprofit or government consulting,” she says. “It was a good challenge for me.”


The students in all four Policy Labs presented recommendations to their respective clients at the close of the Winter Quarter, and all received high marks for their careful analyses.

During the IDFPR group’s final presentation, the music therapy team ultimately recommended against the need for licensure due to healthy growth in the field and existing regulation through other bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission and professional associations of music therapists. The interstate mobility group created a benchmarking tool based on pharmacy licenses so that officials could quickly see important regulatory differences across states. The reducing barriers group pronounced the state’s treatment of those with loan defaults harsh and punitive and also recommended that the department further study the links between criminal background, labor market outcomes, and public safety.

The officials gathered in the room certainly seemed impressed. “Thank you for all of this hard work,” said IDFPR Secretary Bryan Schneider, whose department provides more than 270 types of licenses to more than 1 million people in the state. “I think it’s going to take us in a lot of different directions.”

Division of Professional Regulation Director Jay Stewart says he found the benchmarking tool to be especially valuable. “Professional licensure is state-based, but in today’s modern society people move around,” he said. The students’ tool could help Illinois officials expedite approvals for those coming from states with similar or greater licensing requirements. “Theoretically you could apply that model to all sorts of different professions,” Stewart adds.

Overall, “the quality and the thoroughness was very, very high,” Stewart says. “I had several staffers come up afterward and comment on the overall work quality. It speaks well to the quality of the program and the school.”

—Ed Finkel