Private Gain, Public Loss:

Why Policy Students Opt Out of Government Service

November 11, 2001
Phil Primack (Freelance Journalist, Boston)

The idea of public service – making a commitment to work for the good of the larger community – has made a comeback of sorts in the U.S. in recent years. Even before the events of September 11, many high schools around the nation instituted public-service requirements for graduation. AmeriCorps, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, attracted thousands of young people to work in inner-city and rural communities. Teach for America recruited recent college graduates to tackle the tough job of making public education work in the inner city.

The idea that public service should come in many sizes and shapes has taken hold in communities across the nation. But at the same time that public service has taken hold of the national imagination in new forms, the old-fashioned concept of service in government has suffered, especially in state and local government. Public officials report that attracting the "best and brightest" to government service has become more difficult in recent years as opportunities in the public and nonprofit sectors have proliferated. Even in graduate and professional schools of public policy, the number of students seeking to take government jobs has steadily declined in recent years.

The number of students seeking jobs in state and local government – where the opportunity to make a policy impact is the greatest – has been most troubling of all.