What They Learned: Alexandra Corcoran ’19

The political science and Spanish double major built her thesis upon two summers’ worth of experience studying Medicaid policy and reform with the Georgetown Center for Children and Families.

In an academic setting, research can mean almost anything, from interviewing subjects to analyzing datasets or reading theoretical arguments. For political science major Alexandra Corcoran ’19, though, researching for her thesis involved a little bit of everything.

For Corcoran’s thesis, “Mobilizing Medicaid: Understanding Advocacy Group Action at the State Level,” she compared Medicaid policy, reform, and advocacy group responses in the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky. In order to conduct this comparison, she needed to work fluently with multiple research methods: by its conclusion, her project had involved revisiting theoretical texts, traveling to Kentucky and Alabama thanks to Center for Peace and Global Citizenship funding to interview healthcare advocates, combing through hundreds of citizen responses to reform proposals in each state, and correlating the impacts of individual actions with the impacts of group actions regarding Medicaid policy.

For many, this breadth of research could be intimidating, but for Corcoran it was the continuation of the work she had been doing for her entire Haverford career. Several of the theories she used are ideas she first learned in courses she took with Associate Professor of Political Science Zachary Oberfield (who would become her thesis advisor), and she first began thinking critically about Medicaid reform during two summers she spent interning at the Georgetown Center for Children and Families (CCF).

Ultimately, it was this experience with CCF that pushed Corcoran to study Medicaid reform. “I was struck by the citizen engagement and pushback when different states attempted to cut benefits or add new restrictions to their Medicaid programs and wanted to understand when and how the citizens got involved,” she said. “This interest led me to more general questions about advocacy groups and their work mobilizing low-income folks.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

I think one of the biggest things I learned was just how iterative the research process is. With my thesis, there were several times, both when I was writing my lit review and examining evidence, that my findings took me in an unexpected direction and I had to go back and re-adjust the whole project! For example, while I set out to write a thesis about individual participation, as I read more, it became clear that the key to participation was advocacy group mobilization, so I had to adapt and focus my question more on advocacy group action. In another instance, after I read and coded hundreds of comments that people submitted on the proposed reforms in all three states, I found that this data spoke more to individual-level factors than group factors, so didn’t really prove what I was hoping it would. After my first draft, I had to move all of this analysis and reconfigure a lot of my argument.

What are the implications of your thesis research?

One of the main findings of this thesis is that the individual-level feedback effects of policy interact with group-level effects by shaping the assumptions that advocacy groups make about the populations that they serve. In other words, while it is well established that a public program can affect a citizen’s propensity to participate in politics, my findings suggest that these individual effects change advocacy groups’ calculations about when and how to act.

What are your plans for the future?

Next year, I will be pursuing my masters’ in philosophy and public affairs at University College Dublin with Fulbright fellowship. Pretty soon, I am going to have to start working on my masters’ thesis, and I am hoping that the skills I learned from my Haverford thesis will help me there! I plan to write about the intersection of health policy, political participation, and citizenship. After my year in Dublin, I would like to work in the public sector thinking about how health policies can better serve low-income women and children—everything I learned about both health policy and the research process in my thesis will lay a good foundation for this work.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.