New Rice degree program to teach students how to solve societal problems

Rice will be the first university in the U.S. to offer an undergraduate degree with a unique focus on social policy analysis that teaches students how to develop solutions for society’s greatest challenges. This new interdisciplinary major in Rice’s School of Social Sciences will be available to Rice students this fall.

The new major will replace the existing policy studies major and will focus on policy design, analysis, communication and implementation.

Antonio Merlo, dean of social sciences, said the new major is distinct from policy studies because of its interdisciplinary orientation, structured curriculum and emphasis on integrating rigorous instruction in theory and method with hands-on, skills-based instruction by social sciences faculty to connect their research with policy for the betterment of society.

“This new major will focus on the evaluation of alternative interventions that propose to improve human well-being,” he said. “Graduates will be able to answer pressing questions like, Which early interventions lead to greater educational attainment for low-income children? Which juvenile rehabilitation programs are more likely to reduce the recurrence of criminal behavior? How does health care policy influence our daily health behaviors?”

Merlo said that without evidence-based research and rigorous evaluations to test these ideas, there is no way to know which solutions work and for whom. He said Houston is the perfect place to house this new program.

“The city of Houston is the School of Social Science’s version of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where students can develop solutions to everyday issues,” Merlo said. “The city is diverse, philanthropic and entrepreneurial and is the perfect place for our students to learn. The solutions we generate here will not only play a critical role in improving the lives and well-being of Houston residents, but will also provide key insights to other urban environments throughout the country.”

The major will include courses from all of the current degree programs within the School of Social Sciences and will require a yearlong capstone project. During this experience, students will be required to study an intervention in the Houston area. Those who complete the program will earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in social policy analysis.

Melissa Marschall, professor of political science, and Ruth Lopez Turley, a professor of sociology, served as faculty advisers through the development of the new program. Marschall will serve as director of the program.

“The new social policy analysis major builds on the strengths of the faculty in the School of Social Sciences and reflects our interests in and commitment to bringing evidence-based research into the classroom,” Marschall said. “We want our students to be critical thinkers and doers — to have the skills and the confidence they need to develop and implement policies that solve the most challenging social problems we face: homelessness, poverty, teenage pregnancy, civic disengagement.”

Griffin Thomas, a Lovett College senior majoring in political science and policy studies, participated in the development of the new degree program. He said that he is “incredibly excited” about the program’s creation and implementation.

“The new program offers students the opportunity to develop an expertise in a particular policy area, while also developing the quantitative analytical skills that are so necessary to 21st-century policy development,” Thomas said. “Rice offers incredible access to eminent policy experts, and the new social policy analysis program will give students the ability to leverage these experts in exciting new ways.”

Thomas noted that the interdisciplinary nature of this program — allowing students to develop skills in policy design, analysis, communication and outcome measurement — meets a need of Rice undergraduates.

“The program was developed through a deeply collaborative process between student and faculty members to reflect the aspirations of both groups. Its development is truly a testament to our system of shared governance at Rice,” Thomas said. “The program will provide foundations for creating cross-collaborative environments in which faculty and students can tackle real social problems through multiple departmental lenses. This type of collaborative opportunity is something that students have a real thirst for, so it’s exciting to see Rice respond with such an exciting new initiative.”

For more information on the new program, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.