Elite colleges have begun to take a special interest in their students’ career choices, choosing to promote careers in public service. The inspiration behind such efforts is eloquently expressed by former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, who stated “Excellence alone without humanity is worthless.” Yet, at elite universities around the country, jobs in public service are among the most unpopular post-graduation employment options. According to an annual post-graduation survey run by Harvard’s Office of Career Services, about 22 percent of the Class of 2012 entered jobs in finance or consulting. Meanwhile, only around five to 10 percent of Harvard graduates enter the non-profit and public sectors each year.
Therefore, to compete with Wall Street and consulting firm models that dominate college graduate hiring, the public and non-profit sectors must reform their recruitment strategies and establish legitimacy for their organizations. Additionally, these organizations, along with universities, need to increase the financial viability of and access to public service employment opportunities.
By bringing down these barriers and establishing competitive models, these sectors can create a more favorable incentive structure. Today, programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps are already providing viable, popular opportunities. If applied more broadly, they could shift graduates towards greater participation in public interest careers.
The Recruitment Problem
One major reason behind the relative unpopularity of public interest careers is the absence of early and active recruitment from the public sector. Gene Corbin, Harvard’s Dean of Public Service, described this problem to the HPR: “When Goldman Sachs and McKinsey come to campus early in senior year with a very structured recruitment and application process, I think students know and see a very structure path.”
Trey Grayson, Director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, mentioned the widespread cultural effect that the corporate recruiting process has on campus, saying, “Because it’s a public process and they all go on at the same time, people talk about it in the dining halls.”
Travis Lovett, Director of Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers (CPIC), adds, “It’s going to take a great amount of energy to transform this kind of culture.” The absence of a mechanism through which the public sector can reach out effectively leaves many students interested in and passionate about public service stranded.
Legitimacy and Accessibility
Furthermore, Maria Dominguez Gray, Executive Director of the Philips Brooks House Association, a Harvard non-profit public service organization, said that establishing the “legitimacy” of public service jobs should be a primary concern, since “pressure…comes from wanting to be successful.” The legitimacy of an employment option comes into perspective when students take into account that they are Harvard graduates. Grayson suggested that parents can especially increase the pressure on students when they continuously ask their elite college children, “What’s next?”
Meanwhile, what often drives the legitimacy of an employment option is financial reward. Employment in public service is simply not an option for those seeking a lucrative career path to support families or pay off debt. Gray emphasized that especially for post-graduates, “We need to have a healthy number of opportunities…that can provide a living wage.”
Additionally, summer internships in the financial and consulting sectors often lead to full-time employment offers. But, students receiving financial aid from Harvard must contribute $1,500 annually to their education, which Gray believes poses “a legitimate barrier” for low-income students seeking to engage with public service during their summers.
Finally, volunteer work and public interest opportunities are often characterized by their openness and non-selectivity. However, 33 percent of respondents to a CPIC survey said that “the competition of other Harvard applicants” was a “key barrier for… participating in summer public internships.” Access at Harvard is especially a challenge considering that last year various institutions were only able to grant full-time Harvard affiliated summer service opportunities to 45 percent of applicants.
Models to Follow
Despite the structural challenges that make public service careers difficult to pursue, Teach for America (TFA) and the Peace Corps are rare success stories among post-graduate and full-time public service opportunities. Indeed, TFA and the Peace Corps are among the most sought-after opportunities for recent college graduates, and their selectiveness and prestige have established the aforementioned “legitimacy” that most other public service opportunities are missing.
Elissa Kim, the Executive Vice President for recruitment at Teach for America, tells the HPR, “We know we need to actively convince top students to choose us given the pressures they face to take more ‘traditional’ paths of law, medicine, consulting, and so on. So we do what is required to win talented people; we actively recruit on campuses and get the word out so people can make fully informed choices about what to do when they graduate.”
Such strategizing also applies to the Peace Corps, which has regional recruitment offices and actively hosts recruitment events. Both organizations are testaments to the fact that replicating the models of consulting firms and banks that do heavy college campus recruiting helps mitigate the aforementioned barriers to public service.
The Role of Universities
Universities can also play an important role promoting public interest careers. For instance, as Dean Corbin suggested, “Non-profit and governmental organizations don’t have the resources to come to campus and recruit.” Harvard and other elite institutions can play a central role streamlining the recruitment process for various public sector employers. Gray suggested that Harvard should “make sure that [they’re] focusing more on the culture of legitimacy.” Universities should also increase interest for public service programs beyond TFA and the Peace Corps that provide competitive career paths.
Another challenge for universities to tackle is ensuring access when programs become more competitive over time. Universities might consider establishing mentoring programs for students who are seriously interested in pursuing public interest careers.
Finally, institutions must develop a solution to the question of the financial viability of the public service career pathway. According to Gray, a healthy first step for Harvard would be “forgiveness of the summer contribution” for students participating in public service over their vacation. Lovett told the HPR that “our model should be that we support anyone who cares about service.”
With CPIC’s establishment in 2001 and the hiring of a Dean of Public Service, Harvard has been taking steps toward making public service more accessible and attractive for its students and graduates. Meanwhile, there are many more solutions that can be actively pursued by elite institutions. A reformation of the recruitment process to emulate the models set by TFA and the Peace Corps may have a domino effect, knocking down traditional barriers to public service. Furthermore, America’s elite universities can use their immense resources to deal with students’ financial limitations. Public service organizations and elite universities need to change the incentive structure so the best students choose the public interest over the lucre of Wall Street and consulting.