Alter decided to pursue a degree at the Harris School of Public Policy to gain new skills that would allow her to affect social change on a grander scale.
Kandie Alter, MPP '06


Thorp, Wisc.


Assistant Vice President, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Payments Policy Group


Bachelor’s degree in communications, University of New Mexico


Vice President, Business Resource Group, Welfare to Work Partnership, a job development organization in Chicago. The Washington, D.C.-based organization started under President Clinton and worked to hire ex-offenders and at-risk youth. Alter spent most of career before that in private sector technology sales.

After accomplishing the goals she set for herself in technology sales, Kandie Alter considered charting a new path – one that would allow her to be a voice for the voiceless. She decided to pursue a degree at the Harris School of Public Policy to gain new skills that would allow her to affect social change on a grander scale. In the years since graduation, Alter finds herself drawing on the lessons she learned at Harris, including how to effectively communicate public policy. At the Federal Reserve of Chicago this year, she led the writing of a report by the Faster Payments Task Force, a broad group of more than 300 stakeholders who came together to identify and assess approaches to safer, faster payments capabilities in the United States.

Why public policy?

I have an almost pathological sense of justice. I’m the person who gets enraged when the underdog is taken advantage of or marginalized – in movies and in real life. Those things dig at my core. When I entered Harris, I imagined I’d end up working to help people who couldn’t effectively advocate for themselves, not working in banking.

I work in the area of payments at the Fed. My job is to research and support the Fed’s understanding of issues and evolution in retail payments. Payments support virtually every aspect of the economy and the Fed’s role, in addition to monetary policy and bank supervision, is to support the effective flow and functioning of the payment system.

I was drawn to the Fed as an organization because it has a social mission in ensuring economic stability but we also care about things like broad access to banking, credit and payments mechanisms for businesses and consumers.

What was the moment you realized you wanted to go back to graduate school for an MPP?

Most of my career after undergrad had been in sales, and I’d set a goal and eventually reached a level where I’d had responsibility for one large, multi-national account. But I always felt like I wanted my work to amount to more than maximizing shareholder wealth. Taking a calculated risk and drastic pay cut, I took a job with a nonprofit tasked with helping ex-offenders and at-risk youth gain employment. I expected it would be all about problem solving in the nonprofit world, but naively didn’t expect all the effort and attention paid to sustaining an organization – fund raising, performing to grant requirements, reporting.

I sort of had an idealistic view of how much impact I could have, and quickly realized I needed a different set of skills and tools to advocate for the kind of social change I hoped for on a grander scale.

Why Harris?

It was really the only program that I looked at, mainly because of the University’s reputation, and I knew the curriculum was going to be about more than just talking about social issues. Even if I wasn’t going to be doing the hard data analysis, I knew I needed to be able to understand, interpret and talk about data to be articulate and effective in a policy role.

In your current role, how has Harris’ curriculum and/or the your Harris experience been most beneficial?

I love the work I do and wouldn’t be doing it without my Harris training. I consistently point to classes like Cost Benefit Analysis and Analyzing and Communicating Public Policy as courses that continue to influence how I do my work.

One of the big projects I just finished was leading a team of drafters in writing the final report for the Faster Payments Task Force – a Fed-led initiative bringing together a diverse set of payments industry stakeholders to imagine a faster payments environment inclusive of the broader needs of the full economy. It was great being a part of an effort to encourage the industry and private sector stakeholders to consider more than efficiency or profitability in imagining revolutionary change in how we exchange money and payments in the United States. I’d like to think my Harris training helps me think more about the bigger picture, and help others to do the same.

Is there any advice you would give to a prospective student who is just starting the graduate school application process?

Don’t take the easy route. Go somewhere where you’re going to be challenged and overwhelmed and pushed beyond what you think you can do. Only then are you going to really walk away with an experience worth having and an education that’s going to really allow you to have an impact.

What big ideas motivate you daily?

In addition to my work, I’m pretty obsessed with public education and the challenges neighborhood schools face in Chicago, particularly in socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhoods like my Rogers Park community. We’re battling with budget issues, charter school proliferation, the unintended consequences of school choice, and an uninformed narrative about all but the most sought-after neighborhood schools. I’m pretty driven to reassert into the dialogue the value and true public-good attributes of public neighborhood schools and how, more than anything else, they support equality and the health of a neighborhood. But in this work, I’m continually reminded that I don’t know everything (another Harris-earned quality!); and that influence requires being armed with facts and data, but also understanding the motivation and emotion in the other side of the argument.

Read “The U.S. Path to Faster Payments, Final Report Part Two: A Call to Action” and learn more about what moves Alter to serve the public.

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