Hilary Shager, MPA ’05

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Mosinee, WI

Undergraduate education

Bachelor’s degrees in secondary education (English) and psychology, UW–Madison


Institute for Research on Poverty, UW–Madison

Job title

Associate Director

Start date

March 2018

Primary job responsibilities

The Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) is an interdisciplinary research institute at UW–Madison and the sole federally funded poverty research center in the U.S. My primary job responsibilities there are:

  • Oversee day-to-day operations of IRP, including strategic planning, research ($36M+ portfolio), budgetary, personnel, and dissemination activities
  • Serve as investigator for evaluations of social and education policy- and poverty-related initiatives, including technical assistance and research contracts with Wisconsin state agencies
  • Develop proposals to fund social policy-related research and technical assistance projects
  • Promote and present research findings to local, state, national, and international audiences
  • Supervise IRP staff (37 total; 11 direct), including research and administrative staff and three graduate students; includes responsibility for hiring and performance evaluation
  • Manage administration, financing of Wisconsin Administrative Data Core

Describe a project that best illustrates your job.

Currently, I’m working with the Department of Children & Families (DCF) on a study of the Child Care Counts Stabilization program, which provided funding to child care providers during the pandemic. Program goals included keeping programs open, supporting staff, and improving the ability to provide high-quality care. We are trying to learn more about how providers used the funding, what impacts the program had, and how we can apply this learning to future efforts to support the child care and early education field. The project involves collaborating with program staff and leadership at DCF, learning from child care providers, working with the UW Survey Center, working with IRP staff and students to collect and analyze data, and sharing findings with relevant stakeholders.

How do you use what you learned at La Follette on the job?

So many ways! I specifically went back to school to add some new tools to my toolbox. I use the quantitative analysis, policy analysis, and benefit-cost analysis skills I learned at La Follette all the time. I also learned a lot about how to communicate with policymakers and practitioners—how to ask good, relevant questions, and how to share findings from research in a way that’s accessible and meaningful. I also learned a lot about the importance of networking and building and maintaining relationships with people in the field. I have had the pleasure of working with many of my classmates and former professors from La Follette and many, many alumni.

Which experiences and skills helped you get your job?

I think the combination of strong technical skills along with my ability to communicate well with people helped me get my job and be successful. I love working in the space between government and academia—I feel like I’m able to navigate both organizational cultures and translate work across them, and that’s my unique “value add” in my position.

Why a master’s degree in public affairs?

I was an English and social studies teacher before coming to La Follette, and I chose to earn an MPA because I saw how what was happening outside the classroom was affecting what was happening inside the classroom. I wanted a new set of tools to help impact that macro-level world and got interested in policy/government as the coordinator of our school’s eighth grade Washington, D.C. field trip. Since graduating, I’ve worked broadly in the social policy sphere—trying to understand how we can reduce poverty and improve family well-being, generally.

Why the La Follette School?

Even though I was a UW–Madison graduate, I’d never heard about La Follette. I always thought I’d go back to the School of Education for an advanced degree. But as I was really starting to consider graduate school, I read an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about a project that Professor Dennis Dresang was working on with the Lieutenant Governor’s office at the time—Wisconsin Women = Prosperity—looking at disparities in female representation in government, the economy, etc. And then I learned more about the broad curriculum and new analytic tools I’d be learning about and got excited.

Project assistantships while at the La Follette School

I ended up being a PA for Professor Dresang and working on the Wisconsin Women = Prosperity project. I met a lot of state and community leaders, several of whom I still cross paths with in my work today. It also helped me learn how to conduct and communicate findings from policy relevant research, which is my primary job now.

What impact did your client-based projects have on your education and/or career?

I loved the client-based projects. Again, I came from teaching, so I knew the best way to learn is by doing. For my capstone project, we looked at how changing demographics would impact the workforce and got to present to a state legislative committee. For benefit-cost analysis, we worked on a juvenile justice diversion program; it really opened my eyes in terms of thinking about what an effective program is. They were both extremely meaningful experiences, and I always incorporated client-based projects when I ended up teaching program evaluation.

Most rewarding/challenging La Follette School experiences

My answer to both questions is the same; and forgive me—I’ve told this story multiple times, but it’s true: I remember picking my policy analysis topic out of Dave Weimer’s daunting, furry winter hat. It was, “Should the U.S. government provide terrorism insurance?” There was not a topic that I knew or cared less about. I had just had a baby two and a half weeks ago and was feeling overwhelmed. I went up to Professor Weimer after and told him I didn’t think I could do it—I asked if I could have a different topic. He told me I could do it and did not let me off the hook. He was right. The experience taught me that I was learning the tool of policy analysis, and that I could apply it to anything that came across my desk in the future. It was a real a-ha moment and gave me a ton of confidence. I’m truly grateful for that opportunity.

Why would you recommend the La Follette School?

I believe so strongly in the Wisconsin Idea—that scholarship should benefit the world outside of the university. La Follette is the epitome of the Wisconsin Idea. And it’s certainly not just about Wisconsin—the staff and faculty have done so much to connect students with alumni and new, real-world opportunities.

Volunteer activities

Right now, I volunteer with the United Way of Dane County on a couple of committees that focus on efforts around early childhood and two-generation approaches to poverty reduction. I’ve also volunteered on the policy committee there. Although a lot of my professional work is at the federal and state level, I like being able to use my research/policy skills to support programming at the local level as well.

What awards or honors have you received since graduating from the La Follette School?

I received an “early career” academic staff award from the UW–Madison College of Letters & Science when I was the Associate Director at La Follette. I loved that it was called “early career” given I was over 40 at the time and basically on my third career at that point!

Helpful alumni, faculty, friends, others

Oh my goodness, too many to list individually—I am so grateful to have been so wonderfully supported by professors, colleagues, classmates, and alumni throughout my career. I’ve already mentioned a few above. I’d also include Professor Carolyn Heinrich, who encouraged me to pursue a PhD when that wasn’t even on my radar. I’d also like to give a huge shout out to all the staff I worked with when I was the Associate Director at La Follette—they worked so hard for students and to improve programming, and they taught me so much about being a supportive and successful manager.

Favorite book, podcast, app, Madison restaurant …

Giant Jones Brewing Company!! Fabulous beer and Erika Jones, one of the owners, is a La Follette grad!