Foreign Service: a need for attracting the best

Every year only a few graduate students at schools of foreign service and international affairs enter the United States Foreign Service, and no more than a dozen enter any agency of public service. In contrast, probably 70 percent take jobs in the private sector. The biggest employer is the international commercial banks.

This trend exists at all leading professional schools of international affairs: the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Columbia University, and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. These schools enroll 1,300 graduate students, drawn from more than 4,000 applicants. Graduates from all these schools will have one thing in common - debt.

Since most graduate students finance a major part of their tuition and living expenses with student loans, they leave their programs with prestigious degrees and a $10,000 to $20,000 educational mortgage. With monthly payments running $ 100 to $300, the higher salaries offered by the private sector are not only attractive but often essential to making ends meet.

Last year Georgetown graduates were offered salaries in the range of $30,000 to $34,000 by the commercial banks, in contrast to starting salaries in the State, Defense, and Commerce Departments of $20,000 to $22,000.

This year, the salary gap threatens to become even wider. ''Congress is anti-Foreign Service,'' one key Senate staff member recently told me. ''The members think our diplomats abroad are living too high off the hog. The mood is to trim back even further the modest perquisites and salary raises being proposed.'' Those officials in the Foreign Service who are responsible for selecting new officers, however, are not worried. Only 150 new Foreign Service officers are appointed annually out of 22,000 to 25,000 candidates who take the Foreign Service exam.

Both views are shortsighted. They do not account for the fact that the top recruits - especially students who excel in academics and foreign languages - are turning down commissions in the Foreign Service and will continue to do so. Thus, the supply and quality of the next generation of diplomats is in considerable doubt.

The costs of the US government's declining ability to attract talented students are likely to be measured in diplomatic frustration and foreign policy failures.

Beyond concern over salary, most students report frustration at US government selection procedures. It is not unusual for graduates to wait more than 18 months to hear from the State Department. Other government departments take at least nine months to make decisions, compared with a four-month wait in the private sector.

According to Georgetown graduates, the State Department is the worst agency to deal with and offers ''Mickey Mouse'' assignments for an entering officer. The Central Intelligence Agency is rated the best. Even with its elaborate security clearance process, that agency takes only eight to nine months to decide whom it will hire. Equally important, starting salaries at the CIA are $6 ,000 to $7,000 higher than those at the State Department.

Little can be done in any immediate way to improve the image of government service. And there are probably good, or firmly entrenched, reasons for each agency's policies toward junior officer assignments.

Legislation authorizing the secretary of state to develop programs to assist junior officers in repaying their educational loans, however, could have a dramatic effect on future recruitment for the Foreign Service. Such programs work by providing a year's forgiveness of principal and interest of education loans for every year served. The annual cost of this program would be less than what the US government is now spending per day in El Salvador. And among its benefits would be the incentives provided to younger officers to remain in the service and make it a career.

The secretaries of education and of health and human services currently have loan-forgiveness authority to ensure an adequate supply of elementary and secondary school teachers in poverty-stricken areas and officers for the public in war zones. A Foreign Service loan-forgiveness program would go far toward making the Foreign Service an option once more for many of our students. At a time when the country is in desperate need of young men and women to serve its interests abroad, all too often in harm's way, government help in reducing educational mortgages seems a small price to pay to ensure that the Foreign Service attracts the best.

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