Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Millennial Generation: Serving Main Street or Wall Street?

A recent New York Times article by Sara Rimer has again raised the question of the civic role of our nation’s elite universities and their privileged graduates. The article examines the perception that a growing number of Harvard graduates are forgoing careers in public service (or at least public interest) for more lucrative jobs on Wall Street with hedge funds, investment banks, and consulting firms. According to the article, 20 percent of Harvard graduates were heading into financial services and management consulting this year. As Harvard education professor Howard Gardener put it, “Is this what a Harvard education is for? Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?” To many of us who have never been part of the “Ivy League” the professor’s shock seems somewhat ironic—“becoming,” really, becoming? After feeling slighted for approximately 30 seconds when I failed to make the “Ivy” cut I proceeded to one of thousands of other extremely rigorous private or public institutions that dot the American higher education landscape, where I received an education worthy (I think) of any investment bank or federal agency. But I digress. Perhaps Professor Gardener and Harvard’s new president Drew Gilpin Faust are on to something? Certainly they are not the only ones to worry about the supply of qualified public servants.

In May Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Christopher Shays (R-CT) introduced H.R. 6160 The Roosevelt Scholars Act of 2008 to establish a scholarship program to encourage outstanding graduate students in “mission critical” fields to pursue a career in the federal government. The legislation would provide for the cost of graduate tuition for up to 5 years of study in exchange for at least 3 and not more than 5 years of service in “mission critical” federal positions (Mission-critical positions are those a federal agency identifies as essential to achieving its core functions). According to the Office of Personnel Management, approximately one third of the government’s top scientists, engineers, physicians, mathematicians, economists, and other highly specialized professionals will be retiring in the next five years. A report by the Partnership for Public Service suggests that over the next two years, our largest federal agencies project that they will hire nearly 193,000 new workers for "mission-critical" jobs.

What seems apparent is that the retirement of baby boomers, particularly those in public service will create an enormous demand for a new generation of civil servants. However, the rising cost of a college degree and the growth of student debt combined with the difference in compensation between Main Street and Wall Street is bound to push graduates towards private gain at the expense of the public good. Now, I am all for private gain, but I am also for individual choice, and I know that some graduates, if given the choice (i.e. it was financially viable) would select a career in public service. Money aside, there is of course the question of the relative ‘prestige’ associated with the two career paths, but on the whole I think the relative prestige tends to reflect the differing financial rewards rather than say, an underlying cultural value in favor of derivatives trading. Perhaps, (it certainly cannot be ruled out) I am woefully out of touch with the present culture. Otherwise it would seem the question is one of incentives: Are public servants sufficiently compensated? Are investment bankers over-paid (as the shareholders of Bear Sterns)? Should graduates pursuing careers in public service (as opposed to financial services) receive the same support in their course of study?

Regardless of where you come down on the first two questions I think most people could agree that it is in the public interest for public monies (in this case federal financial aid) to give preference (the two should not be mutually exclusive) to students who in turn intend to pursue a career in public service. And on the whole I think most people would agree that it is in partial fulfillment of their civic role that University’s offer financial assistance to students interested in public service that may not be available to students on other career paths.

Thus, the most sensible means of adequately staffing public agencies and encouraging a new generation to consider public service is to incentivize education in exchange for service. Doing so could take the form of the Price-Shays legislation that would award scholarships in exchange for federal service. It could also include increasing the AmeriCorps education award and tying it more closely to the rising cost of a four year degree (as opposed to the CPI) as Senator Dodd’s National Service Legislation would. The new GI Bill is another means. Or perhaps the creation of a U.S. Public Service Academy--based on the model of the military academies—which would train an elite cadre of dedicated civil servants (the Academy similarly noted and responded to the Times article).

Finally the examples set by Universities like Amherst, Tufts, and U Penn should inspire other institutions to consider their own civic roles (Tufts will pay off student loans for graduates who choose public service professions). It’s time for the folks at Harvard to quit their hand-wringing, put their money where their mouth is (all $ 36 billion) and follow the example of innovators like Tufts. Maybe then the John F Kennedy School can again claim to be a school of government.

1 comment:

Chris Myers Asch said...

Amen, Alex!

Thank you for mentioning the initiative to build a U.S. Public Service Academy. This Academy would stand as a powerful symbol of the value we place on public service, and it can help change how young people perceive public service. Maybe it will help shame the Harvards of the world to do more to encourage students to pursue service.


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