La Follette School is preparing for the future with funding from Ascendium

A student wearing a graduation cap waits before a graduation ceremony in the Assembly Chambers of the Wisconsin State Capitol.At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, student interest in public policy has skyrocketed in recent years. To cater to students’ desire to make the world a better place through public policy, the La Follette School of Public Affairs launched an undergraduate public policy certificate program in 2019. In the five years since then, the number of enrolled undergraduate and graduate students has increased fivefold, from 110 to 580 total. Current student demand projections suggest La Follette could serve a total of 4,000 students annually in another five years.

Capitalizing on student interest in public policy now could mean solving problems that will affect us tomorrow. However, La Follette requires additional resources to train the future public leaders of Wisconsin and beyond, expand its public outreach mission, and support research that informs evidence-based policymaking.

Thanks to a $500,000 grant from Ascendium Education Group, La Follette is one step closer to meeting the high demand for public policy education while preparing more students than ever for careers in public service.

Training the next generation of public policy leaders

La Follette’s academic programming gives students the knowledge, analytical skills, and fieldwork experience to advance the public good. Through its two certificate programs, undergraduate students can apply a policy perspective to their major course of study or specialize in health policy. Graduate students can also tailor their degree to their academic experience and professional goals, combining public policy with, for instance, urban planning to address housing, transportation, and environmental issues.

La Follette is well positioned to help address the need for a highly skilled and nonpartisan workforce to solve our public policy challenges. La Follette was recently ranked in the top 10% of public affairs schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report and is the highest-ranked public affairs school with fewer than 200 graduate students. Upon graduation, over half of its 2023 graduate students entered government service, with the rest either entering nonprofit work, the private sector, or an advanced degree program (source: La Follette).

To enable even more students to apply policy education to their public service interests, La Follette plans to launch UW’s first undergraduate Major in Public Policy as early as fall 2025.

The school’s focus on teaching thoughtful and civil dialogue around public policy issues and combating polarization will set it apart from other schools. As faculty and staff work to create the major, civility in policymaking and bridging political divides will be a key focus of the new program’s curriculum.

Ascendium’s grant will help La Follette develop the new major and work towards its goals to:

  • Create high-impact classroom experiences.
  • Scale up its course design, programming, and student support, including advising and financial aid.
  • Provide financial support for undergraduate internships.
  • Develop its employer pipeline for future experiential learning opportunities.
  • Explore options for a new home on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus.

Ultimately, La Follette will expand its capacity to train the leaders of tomorrow, who can help find solutions to the public policy challenges of today.

Helping students reach their academic and career goals

By considering how policy interventions can foster access to education and upward mobility, Ascendium and La Follette can amplify their impact together.

“Ascendium’s mission is to change postsecondary education and workforce training systems for learners from low-income backgrounds,” said Ascendium’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer, Richard D. George. “And well-informed public policy can play a major role in systems change.”

“Our students are driven to make good public policy that can make a positive difference in people’s lives,” said the La Follette School’s Interim Director Greg Nemet. “This tremendously generous gift from Ascendium will help us give students the tools they need to take on the important challenges of our time.”

As a national leader in public policy education, La Follette can produce leaders capable of improving postsecondary education at the systems level, thereby expanding opportunities for students to reach their academic and career goals.

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