Five Northern Virginia jurisdictions in the Top 20 of a national poll conducted by the independent business news publication 24/7 Wall Street boast leaders who earned their Master’s in Public Administration degrees in the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, a competitive cohort-based program in which the tuition is paid in full or part by the local government.
Factors in the publication’s survey include quality of educational opportunities, poverty rates, life expectancy, birth rates, average incomes, unemployment rates, and general well-being.
Arlington County is the No. 3 best place in the nation to live, based on a multi-faceted index measuring the quality of life. Fairfax County is No. 6 on the list. Loudoun County is No. 8, followed by the City of Fairfax at 10 and the City of Alexandria at 16.
Some 200 graduates of the 20-year-old Schar School fellowship program serve as executives, administrators, board members, and supervisors of the region’s local governments. Class cohorts are selected by top executives and vetted by human resources departments before being permitted to enroll in the MPA program.
“Many of the county administrators have said explicitly, ‘This is my executive development program,’” said James K. Conant, a Schar School professor of government and politics.
Conant arrived at Mason in 1996 to be MPA Director in the Department of Public and International Affairs. He immediately set about creating partnerships with local governments across Northern Virginia. A key part of Conant’s plan was the creation of a fellows program serving the Northern Virginia region. With strong support from the MPA faculty and the county executives from Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties, the first cohort of the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program began meeting in the fall of 2000.
The Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program is a “cohort program” in which students take classes together, study in groups, and finish the program with hands-on capstone projects. The 20-or-so fellows in each cohort complete the required 36 credit hours in two-and-a-half years. The fellows take all of the same required courses other Schar School MPA students take, but the cohort’s elective courses are focused on the state of Virginia, government in Northern Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Since 2005, associate professor James N. Burroughs has provided the faculty leadership for the fellows program and has enhanced its visibility across the Washington, D.C. area. The MPA Fellows’ academic performance is strong, and many are in the top of the Schar School MPA graduating class. For example, last year’s Cohort 13 had seven of the top 20 graduating master’s degree students.
“This is common, given the process where the localities screen and nominate students into the program,” said Burroughs. “It’s always a high-quality group. It is fairly common for there to be a 4.0 grad in the cohort. Three years ago, we had three cohort members graduate with a 4.0.”
The Master’s in Public Administration degree often leads to job promotions or, in the case of Michelle L. Attreed, a major award from peers. Attreed, the Director of Finance for Prince William County, received the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women in Public Finance, Virginia Chapter.
“Earning my Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason through the local government cohort program helped to prepare me for a position of leadership within my organization,” she said. “Mason’s quality program equipped me with the thought process to effectively deal with public officials and provide creative inputs toward the development of good public policy and sound financial management.”
The MPA fellows take two courses a semester. Such an intense course work schedule often creates bonds among cohort members, which is an intentional byproduct of the program, Conant said. “We want to build social capital within, and create strong professional networks across governments in Northern Virginia,” he said.
Graduates are often happy to continue an affiliation with the program, Burroughs said. For example, during the MPA program's Local Government Night, new MPA students travel to Prince William County in the fall and Fairfax County in the spring to learn about local government. In both counties, graduates of the MPA Fellows program help to "teach the class" on local government. “The new MPA students get to see how the MPA degree connects to local government and to the world of public service,” Burroughs said.
Past policy and administrative issues the fellows have studied in their electives include the opioid crisis, affordable housing and homelessness, public safety, transportation, development and immigration. Designing responses to those issues underscores one of the program’s important attributes: an emphasis on managing a network that includes nonprofit, public, and private organizations.
At the 20-year mark, Burroughs sees a bright future for the cohort program.
“Most of our new cohort students were recommended by or encouraged to apply by our graduates.” At one cohort recruiting session this spring, 12 graduates came out to talk with prospective students. “They were once students and now they are sending us the next generation of local leaders,” he said.