In Harvard College’s 2011 Baccalaureate address, University President Drew Faust declared that the recession and slow economic recovery actually meant that the current generation of graduates was, “in a strange sense, liberated.” Faust urged students to embrace uncertainty and take career risks to pursue passions that they might otherwise abandon. Yet despite their apparent freedom, many graduates find it increasingly difficult to justify taking public sector jobs beyond a few years. Indeed, though Teach For America and other service organizations enjoy great interest among graduates, most students seek well-paying private sector jobs for the long term. Likewise, the percentage of graduates of elite institutions entering finance, though slightly dampened by the recession, has remained high.
From expanding financial aid to subsidizing internships and community service work, universities and colleges have attempted to promote diverse career paths. However, the responsibility of educating the next generation of America’s public servants cannot fall solely on educators alone. Ultimately, government career- building initiatives are necessary to provide youth with critical real-world support and direction.
The Role of Elite Education
Faust told the HPR that Harvard’s sustaining legacy has been its mission to “create people who seek knowledge their whole life and use that ability, and that commitment to knowledge, to make a difference in the world.” However, what constitutes that difference? Though many of her students enter into finance and consulting, Faust insists that these fields make, “important contributions in enhancing economic growth for the world” and are “personally satisfying because of the kind of questions it raises and talents it calls on.”
Anthony Marx, former president of Amherst College and current president of the New York Public Library, offers a different perspective. He insists that elite higher education has a “responsibility…to hold up public service, and examples of public service, as life paths that we value and need as a society.” Universities and colleges should be concerned with the career paths of their graduates, particularly those in the public realm. According to Marx, “To the degree that the graduates of top universities are not going into public service, into teaching, and into all kind of arenas that require talent for us to have the kind of society that we want that is something we should worry about.”
Still, Marx and other education experts conclude the best way to shape students’ post-graduation plans to present them with “the opportunity to explore alternatives and… leave it to them to decide what they want to do with their lives,” as Marx puts it. These experts agree that the liberal arts curriculum should not explicitly tell students what fields they should enter upon graduation, but rather provide students with a wide array of choices. These higher education institutions can go even further, alleviating key obstacles that students face in entering the public sector.
Reducing the Burden of Student Debt
Education policymakers should first seek to remove the constraint finances play when students consider career options. For example, when expanding Amherst’s financial aid to ensure that students did not need loans, Marx increased the number of low-income students matriculating to his college. However, while the no- loan policy, similarly adopted at other universities and colleges over the past decade, was aimed primarily at making college more accessible, its secondary effect was to make opportunities for public sector careers after graduation more obtainable.
Expecting undergraduates to shoulder the debt burden precluded many from pursuing low salary public careers, including teaching and social work. Marx believes this effectively meant “coming to college was reducing options rather than opening options for how you want to spend your life.” Likewise, Julie Morgan of the Center for American Progress told the HPR that reducing college debt during the economic slump is more important than ever in keeping doors open for students struggling to “tell what kind of job will be waiting on the other end.”
Higher education institutions also have a responsibility to subsidize summer internship opportunities for low- income students. Faust insists that such formative experiences in public service can be quite inspiring and serve as practical training, observing, “We try to give students the support to undertake public service while they’re undergraduates, because we find that students try it out and often love it and will continue it as a career.”
The Government’s Role
Despite colleges’ and universities’ efforts, major gaps still exist. A Brookings Institute study found that Millenials, that generation born after 1985, were far more interested in public service than their immediately preceding antecedents. Yet, while interest abounds, government agencies from the Pentagon to USAID have lamented impending retirements and subsequent expected labor shortages. According to Peter W. Singer, an author of the Brookings study, a disconnect exists. “We have a public sector that still hasn’t figured out how to recruit the Google generation…and is instead more attune to the Mad Men Generation.” While opportunities exist for public sector work, many students need assistance to make the transition possible.
The Higher Education Act, passed in 2008, achieved some progress in recruiting students for fields with high demand, including nursing and teaching, by providing student debt relief. Similarly, the Brookings’ study found that 71 percent of the Millennials studied were interested in a scholarship program entailing five years of government service upon graduation, paralleling the military academies. Morgan believes that along with additional support provided by the Obama Administration, “Programs like [the Higher Education Act] can really help guide individuals back to [the careers] that might have been their original intention before taking on the debt.” Indeed, strengthening institutional support for students hoping to enter public service would be an exceptional step towards resolving this dilemma.
Changing the Discourse
Mark Bray, a representative with the Occupy Wall Street press team, suggests that connections can be made with the movement’s frustrations. He maintains, “There is the sense [amongst Occupy protesters] that the boards of trustees and presidents of universities prioritize certain types of programs…related to corporate interests and donations,” and expend less effort supporting social work. Bray believes the Occupy movement understands that students have difficulties paying off high student debt and “justifiably search for the most high income jobs possible,” whether or not these jobs “best promote the well-being of society.”
Regardless of Occupy’s other goals, the prospect of students entering the public sector has not garnered such attention since the Kennedy era. Supporting youth in entering these careers is a challenge that will entail support from both institutions of higher learning and the government. The sooner policymaker’s act, the more society will benefit.
ImeIme Umana ’14 is a Contributing Writer. Beatrice Walton ’14 is the World Blog Editor.
Photo Credit: Harvard University Public Affairs and Communication