Public Policy

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(Note: At Hamilton, majors are called “concentrations;” the term major is used in this document because that’s what the rest of the world calls them.)

What is public policy all about?  What do students learn in the major?

In public policy, students use the tools of economics, philosophy, and political science to evaluate current government programs and policies, and to design new and better policies.  In each area of government policy, students ask the same basic questions: 1) Is this policy economically feasible, and what are its costs and benefits to society?,  2) Is this policy morally defensible?, and 3) Is this policy politically viable?

The range of issues studied by students in the major is enormous.  Students have focused on subjects as diverse as crime, domestic violence, economic development, education, the environment, foster care, health care, juvenile delinquency, refugees, Social Security, transportation, and welfare.

At Hamilton, how does public policy differ from government?

Government majors focus on the process of making government decisions, including questions such as: What is the role of primaries in the process of electing a President?  How do interest groups affect the passage of legislation?  How important are political parties in making decisions?  How have Presidential appointments changed the decisions of the Supreme Court?

Public policy majors focus on the outcomes of government decisions, evaluating them from a variety of perspectives.  Public policy majors address questions such as: Would school choice improve the education of inner city children?  Is it ethical to deny additional welfare benefits to women who have children while on welfare?   What are the costs and benefits of requiring all employers to provide health insurance benefits?  What are the financial effects of raising the retirement age for social security?

Is public policy an unusual major?

In a national sense, yes.  Very few schools offer a major in public policy like ours.  In the sense of majors at Hamilton College, no.  The number of public policy majors varies from five to eighteen per class year, with an average of perhaps ten or eleven.  This is close to the average for most majors at Hamilton.

What kind of students do well in public policy?

Many different kinds, from those who are interested in all types of public policy to those who want a broader major than just economics, government, or philosophy.  The major is particularly good for a student who has a keen interest in one particular policy issue and wants to learn how to understand that issue from a variety of perspectives.  One recent student, for example, has always had a strong interest in education for the poor, and the public policy major has given her the tools to explore that issue fully.

What are the requirements for a public policy major?

Here’s what the Hamilton College Catalogue says:

A concentration in Public Policy consists of 251, 382 and the Senior Project; Economics 100, 110 and 275; Government 116, 230 (or Economics 265) and 338; and courses chosen from the following options:

one of the following three courses:

Government 114: Introduction to Political Theory

Philosophy 111 Contemporary Moral Issues

Philosophy 271 Ethics of Professions and Practices

Philosophy 380 Philosophy of Law

one of the following two courses:

Philosophy 450 Seminar in Ethics: Ethical Theory

Philosophy 460 Seminar in Ethics: Contemporary Theories of Justice

and one of the following nine "issue areas" courses:

Economics 315 Economics of Gender and Work

Economics 346 Monetary Policy

Economics 350 Economics of Poverty and Income Distribution

Economics 380 Environmental Economics

Government 335 The Criminal Justice System

Government 375 Educational Reform and Ideology

Sociology 230 Urban Sociology

Sociology 272 Sociology of Poverty

Sociology 315 Seminar on Poverty and Homelessness

What are the classes like?

Most of the classes are taken in the economics, government, and philosophy departments with students in other majors  But three courses are designed specifically for public policy majors. In these three “hands-on,”  integrative courses, the tools of economics, philosophy, and political science are applied to particular policy issues:

  • In Introduction to Public Policy, students learn the basics of ethics from the perspectives of the utilitarians, Kant, and Rawls; master the fundamentals of cost-benefit analysis; and explore the theory of market failure.  These theoretical ideas are discussed in the context of current policy debates in economic development, environmental protection, health care, and welfare.
  • In Topics in Public Policy, students take on a major policy problem, and as a group devise a new policy to solve the problem.  Previous classes have:
  • devised a new health insurance system for the United States;
  • designed a new financing and delivery system for public education in New York State;
  • created a comprehensive program for combating HIV and AIDS in the United States;
  • revised the Medicare and Social Security systems in the United States, and
  •   performed a cost-benefit analysis of Bosnian refugees in Oneida County, New York.           

The third and final integrative course is the senior project, discussed below.

What do students do in the senior project in public policy?

Students in public policy have a choice of three options for their senior project:

1. Students can take a senior seminar in the government department.  Typically, this is a one-semester project, done in the fall of the student’s senior year.

2. Students can elect to write a “traditional” thesis on a public policy topic, using research from books, journals, and the Internet.  This project can take one or two semesters, and usually involves a topic that is suggested by the student.

3. Students can choose to write a “public contract” thesis, in which the topic is an evaluation project requested by a state or local government in our area.  Every summer, we solicit projects from a wide variety of government agencies, and students are offered their choice of the submitted projects.  Our previous clients have included:

  • New York State Division for Youth, Department of Education, Office for Aging, Division of Management and Budget, and Department of Transportation
  • Oneida County Department of Social Services and Department of Mental Health
  • Oneida County EDGE
  • the Towns of New Hartford and Paris
  • the Clinton Chamber of Commerce

How do employers and graduate schools react to the public policy major?

Typically, employers and graduate schools looking at graduates of liberal arts colleges are not terribly concerned about the students’ major, as long as they do well in that major.   In interviews with students, the employers and graduate schools  have often never heard of a public policy major.  This gives the student an opening to tell the interviewer something about themselves: why they chose public policy, what they got out of it, and what skills they bring to the job because of it.

What do public policy students do after graduation?

The typical career track is to work for a couple years after graduation, and then pursue some type of professional degree. The two-year work stint is taken in a variety of ways, including working on Capitol Hill, applying to a social service program like Teach for America, taking an analyst position on Wall Street, or seeking a job overseas such as teaching English in Japan.  The most common professional degree is a law degree, followed by degrees in public policy and public administration.  Only a minority of students end up working for a government agency – most find a career in the private sector in a variety of contexts, both in and out of the public policy field..

Where can I get further information?

Prospective students, current students, parents, alumni, and anyone else interested in public policy should contact Professor Paul Gary Wyckoff, director of the public policy program. His phone number is (315)859-4198, his e-mail is, and his snail-mail address is Department of Government, Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY 13323.

You may also wish to contact any of the current majors in public policy, which include:

Class of 2000:

Tonya Bloomer
Jimmy DiNardo
Ani Drescher
Bjorn Franson
Jennifer Irvine
Kelly McKeown

Class of 2001:

Dan Cooper
LD Platt
Amanda Reisner
Jolyn Sweet
Caleb Ward

Class of 2002:

Eric Boyce
Matt Eng
Tim Fossett
Cristina Freyre
Mike Gianelli
Henry Hornblower
Becky Karb
Amanda Mereau
Joe Nebbia
Peter Safer