A Public Service Investment

(Albany Times-Union, February 8, 2009)

Gen. David Petraeus is a marvelous return on our investment. Americans paid for his education at West Point. And the man who saved the United States from catastrophe in Iraq is not the only brilliant investment taxpayers have made: West Point ranks behind only Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in producing Rhodes Scholars.

Americans have — rightfully — provided excellent educations to young men and women who seek to lead our military. But we also — inexplicably — refuse to reap the reward of educating those who want to serve the nation in other ways.

In 2007, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a bill to create a West Point for civilians. This proposed undergraduate institution, the United States Public Service Academy, would train a new generation of leaders to serve our country at the federal, state and municipal level. The bill gained bipartisan support in the Senate, and companion legislation enjoyed similar support in the House. It was not enacted, but is expected to be re-introduced soon.

The Public Service Academy has earned the endorsement of individuals ranging from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as well as more than 70 college presidents and three former superintendents of West Point.

It would operate correspondingly to West Point. Each class of 1,275 students, appointed by congressional nomination, would pursue a liberal arts education while taking practical classes in budget skills, emergency management, law enforcement or foreign languages. Their obligation would be the same as West Point cadets’: five years’ service in return for tuition, room and board. Upon graduation, they would enter government ready — and able — to serve.

Existing schools aren’t meeting our need for civilian leadership. Thirty years ago, almost four out of five graduates of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs took government jobs upon earning their degrees. These days, barely one in three do. Our colleges — even those with top public policy programs — are also providing fewer leaders. The percentage of graduates who enter public service has dropped by half within a generation.

Money is certainly a factor. State university tuition went up an average of 35 percent (adjusted for inflation) from 2002 to 2007. As the cost of college education goes up, so do the loans. And the public sector cannot compete, salary-wise, with much of the private sector when it comes to luring top graduates.

But it doesn’t have to. West Point understands that no one joins the Army for the money. Its institutional prestige is sufficient to attract talented young Americans. Indeed, only 13 percent of applicants were accepted last year. Many universities boast similar selectivity, but none produces graduates solely for public administration.

America’s new century is off to a rough start. Federal, state and local governments confront fiscal ruin. It’s clear that they will be required to do more with less, a problem whose only solution is innovative thinking. But the innovative thinkers earning their degrees this May are unlikely to be seeking employment where we need them most: in, for example, the Social Security Administration, their state’s education agency or a city planning department.

West Point calls itself “the world’s premier leader development institution.” It’s time that the rest of our government gave it some competition for those high school seniors who want to be leaders. By harnessing America’s vast future talent, the proposed Public Service Academy will make it a lot less unusual to say “promising” and “bureaucrat” in the same sentence. Our cities, our states and our nation’s largest employer – the federal government – need Petraeuses more than ever. They’re out there, if we invest in them.