How does the Integrative Seminar provide a capstone experience for online MPA students?

The University of San Francisco’s online Master of Public Administration program strives to empower individuals to become ethical leaders and advocates of social justice. Through required courses, students learn the theoretical foundation needed to implement community change and the practical skills to do so. Confirmation of this learning is demonstrated in a final capstone course.

Through their public administration coursework, students increase the range of public workforce careers they can enter, or advance their current careers in nonprofit, government, and other public-oriented positions in the education and healthcare sectors.

So, what is a capstone class, and why is it important?

What is a capstone course?

A capstone course at the end of a graduate program requires students to complete projects and assignments drawing on the sum of knowledge gained through their prior classes. Much like in the Grand Canyon where a capstone layer of denser rock keeps the layers below from eroding, finishing the capstone class cements prior learning and marks the end of the program.

Capstone course projects are structured differently depending on the school, the underlying curriculum, and the instructor. Many involve conducting an independent research study, while others demonstrate team collaboration skills among students. No matter what form they take, these final products synthesize various prior knowledge sets and allow students to express their learning through singular projects that are valuable inclusions to a professional portfolio.

For the MPA program at USF, students write on an assigned topic for the capstone paper, pulling from real-life experiences and course learnings for evidence and argument.

Prerequisites for a capstone seminar

Because a capstone class is designed to confirm learning and integrates previously completed coursework, students first complete nearly all other credits to graduate from the MPA program before signing up for this course. The USF MPA program is composed of 39 credits which combine theoretical and professional skills, all applicable to their real lives and careers.

During the 13 required courses offered online, students cover everything involved in public management from finance to public policy analysis to information technologies and trends. Each class lasts eight weeks, with two classes taken per term. Following their other courses, as all graduation requirements are met, students sign up for PA650, the Integrative Seminar, which provides the capstone experience and finishes even as they graduate and take to the stage at Commencement.

How does the Integrative Seminar work?

Students in the MPA program generally complete this integrative capstone course in the same semester they graduate.

Some schools retain the traditional master thesis, where students submit a proposal that states a previously un-studied question and suggests methodology for researching the question, drawing from all the learning of their master’s degree course of study. After approval, students begin compiling data related to the stated question. Upon completion of the thesis paper, several faculty members engages in a final review. Students will not be able to graduate until the thesis paper is accepted.

Capstone courses, like the PA 650 Integrative Seminar,  offer an alternative to the thesis writing approach, and are increasingly common in professional master’s programs where graduates generally go into practical careers in their communities rather than pursue even higher study, such as the Ph.D. These courses bring together all the material covered throughout the program, similar to the thesis model, but then ask students to apply that learning more pragmatically to problems they are sure to encounter in their working lives after college is complete.

The precise organization of a seminar’s tasks leading to the completion of the student’s capstone project vary based on the faculty assigned to the class and the students’ current and future plans for public service. However, the basic steps are the same.

Students sign up for the course as they are completing all other credit requirements and, with the help of their professor, they review past learning, check for weaknesses (if any) in prior knowledge or experience. If any are noted, this is an opportunity to seek additional information from faculty to assure they have gained the required learning competencies.

Using knowledge gained throughout the course of the MPA program, students evaluate specific issues or policies related to their public management interests. Techniques and skills related to various competencies should be utilized for a comprehensive analysis. Once finished, the final analysis will be sent for approval. Only after the final draft is accepted can a student receive their MPA.

The benefits of a capstone experience

Because USF’s MPA program is designed to provide a comprehensive education, it requires students to bring together knowledge across a range of essential areas from human resources to big data to leadership, similar to the challenges faced by our world’s civic leadership. Because public management requires a range of knowledge and the ability to correctly assess the skills of those who work with managers in public service, and due to the school’s social justice mission, the USF MPA program’s learning objectives are wide and varied:

  • Prepare students to effectively manage public organizations with kindness and humanity.
  • Confirm each student knows how to act as a liaison between government, for-profit and nonprofit organizations to assure these collaborative organization can agree on actionable solutions to current problems.
  • Demonstrate students have elevated their skills in working with peers and faculty through comprehensive instruction, research and course assignments of all sorts.
  • Confirm students can assess others’ research and ideas in implementing ethical policies and practices.

As students progress through coursework, each course’s learning objectives are met in turn and each topic covered. The capstone course is the protective layer and glue that holds all these discrete subjects and goals together, unifying them into a single body of knowledge and practice that serves the communities where students live and work.

Students apply all acquired skills through their final analysis into a single, cohesive effort.

Much like the real world of public leadership, a capstone course does not involve an isolated skill, but instead draws from different sources and knowledge sets. Individuals in this course use critical thinking and analytical skills to address a larger and less familiar problem, similarly to how they will apply their education in the real world.

Why USF?

The University of San Francisco is committed to developing effective leaders of nonprofit and public organizations who manage projects and communities humanely and ethically.

Professors provide advanced theory and managerial skills that are immediately applied in students’ current public, nonprofit and healthcare roles.  By interacting with faculty and fellow students who are current and aspiring leaders in their fields, students gain insight into the day-to-day work of various professionals and draw on professors’ and well as one another’s outside knowledge.

In addition to USF faculty, the online MPA makes the greatest use of a cohort learning approach that connects all students with their peers to learn from one another and collaborate on projects. Emphasis is placed on real-world scenarios and case studies that explain and illuminate public management theory to make learning as applicable as possible.

Many people are drawn to the online MPA program mid-career well after entering the workforce. While online students are welcome on campus at any time, to work around busy schedules, the degree is offered through asynchronous online learning and can be completed in 2 years while still professionally employed. Students can log in at any time to complete work, even while also meeting obligations of jobs and other obligations.

With the combination of core courses, a capstone experience, and guidance from experienced faculty, students improve their work opportunities and further their careers upon graduation. To learn more, complete and submit this form to contact faculty or submit a program application.

Recommended Readings:

4 Keys to Civic Leadership

Defining Public Administration

5 Tips on How to Find a Job with a Degree in Public Administration


Catalog: Master of Public Administration

MPA Curriculum

EdGlossary: Capstone Project Definition

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