Public policy schools broaden their mission

Many graduates are drawn to businesses and nonprofits instead of government

Clay Norrbom could be a ray of hope for the public-service sector. He's interned at the American Embassy in Dublin, Ireland. He's served as mayor in his hometown of Eland, Wis. And now the 20-something is about to graduate with a master's degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

But for now, it's not a government job he's got his eye on. This summer, he'll start work as a corporate banker in New York.

He's got plenty of company, too. At top schools of public policy and international affairs, fewer students are answering the call to government service, opting instead for jobs in nonprofit organizations and private companies.

"The private sector in the years right out of school offers more challenges," Mr. Norrbom says.

Schools are changing their curriculums to prepare students for a new kind of public service in which graduates will hop between sectors or perhaps never enter government. It's prompted concern among some faculty that the schools may be drifting too far from their original mission of training public leaders and policy analysts.

Nationwide, most graduates of the United States' 250 public-policy and public-administration schools still land jobs in local, state, or federal government, according to the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration.

But that's no longer true of top policy schools and most international-affairs programs.

At The Fletcher School, founded in the 1930s as a finishing school for State Department Foreign Service officers, less than a third of graduates now enter government.

Observers say there are many reasons for the shift.

A booming economy widened the gap between public and private salaries. And a decade of downsizing forced agencies to freeze hiring and contract out functions previously performed in-house.

"The basic shape of public service has changed dramatically," says Paul Light, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Government is not an employer of choice anymore."

To guide students entering the private sector, The Fletcher School created two new certificate programs, one in international finance and banking and the other in strategic management and consulting.

Courses in finance, accounting, and marketing benefit students no matter what career they pursue, says interim dean Joel Trachtman. "Business studies are not just for business students," he says. "Core business skills are just as important to people in the Navy as people at Citibank or CARE."

From Idaho to Indiana, policy schools are also adding new courses specifically geared for students entering nonprofits.

At Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), where 15 percent of graduates take jobs with nonprofits after graduation, eight elective classes give the skills nonprofits require, including managing volunteers and fundraising, says Prof. Kirsten Grnbjerg.

Students can also intern during the school year at local homeless shelters, environmental groups, or other organizations.

SPEA student William Hodson works at a Bloomington, Ind., nonprofit that serves the developmentally disabled. He says coursework in nonprofit management helped him understand the relationship between government and nonprofits. "They're so intertwined.... Government does so much of [its] work through nonprofits," Mr. Hodson says.

People can serve the public good whether they work in government or not, many professors agree.

"The commitment of the school to public service is served by students working in a variety of settings now that the public's business is done by all three sectors [government, business, and nonprofit]," says Prof. Steven Smith of the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs.

But Eugene Smolensky, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy (University of California, Berkeley), says he fears some peer institutions may wind up looking more like business or social-work schools as they accommodate student preferences.

"It's a problem," Professor Smolensky says. "What business are we in?"

At Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Pittsburgh, almost two-thirds of graduates take jobs in the private sector, where their information-technology skills are attractive to consulting firms.

"It's increasingly become important for us to balance the lure of consulting with the benefits and personal satisfaction of public service," says Barbara Brewton, director of the Heinz School's master of science in public policy and management program.

There's also concern about who will fill the ranks of government as students look elsewhere for work. In the next five years, more than one-third of federal employees will be eligible to retire.

"Attracting young people into government - even if it's not their lifelong career - and our ability to keep them in government remain extremely important," says Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

To make government service more attractive, the Kennedy School offers partial loan forgiveness to students who work as Presidential Management interns in the federal government and free tuition to some students who commit to three years of public service after graduation.

Last year, the Newton, Mass.-based Imagitas Corp. offered $7,000 stipends to 11 Kennedy School students who were working during the summer at federal agencies. "It's crucial to us to have quality people in public office," says Imagitas vice president Nick Carter.

Kennedy School student Vickie Choitz says her summer job at the White House Domestic Policy Council opened her eyes to public service at the "highest levels of elected office."

She adds she's unlikely to take a job at a federal agency after graduation this year, but the public sector won't lose her altogether: "The states are where the action is."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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