Despite having received significant funding earmarked for the pursuit of public service, the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs continues to produce few undergraduate alumni who pursue public service after graduation.
Of the 2017 and 2018 Wilson School undergraduate classes, only four percent of each class listed public sector work as their career destination, according to the WWS 2017-18 Annual Report and WWS 2016-17 Annual Report. For the undergraduate classes of 2016 and 2015, 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively, listed their career destinations as “public or nonprofit employment,” according to the WWS 2015-16 and WWS 2014-15 Annual Reports.
Some of the reasons students and professors gave for disinterest in federal jobs among the undergraduates included lower financial compensation compared to private sector jobs, difficulty accessing government jobs without connections, and the lack of prestige of certain government positions.
In 2008, the University settled with the Robertson family over accusations of misusing funds from a 1961 endowment. The funds were granted for use in preparing Wilson School graduate students for government careers. But Robertsons’ descendants argue that the funds have actually been used to prepare students for a more expansive set of careers. Around the time of the trial, the University reported that from 1973 to 2005, 22 percent of graduate alumni of the Wilson School worked in the U.S. federal government after graduation, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, the proportion of graduate alumni who go into public service after graduation is higher than that of undergraduate alumni, and the percentage of Wilson School graduate alumni who took jobs in the public sector upon graduation increased after the Robertson case.
Among Class of 2018 graduate students whose postgraduate plans are finalized, 30 percent plan on entering the public sector. This reflects the 63 percent of Master of Public Policy (MPP) graduates and 27 percent of Master of Public Administration graduates who entered the public sector, according to the 2017-18 Annual Report.
For many Wilson School undergraduate concentrators, the low statistics are not surprising.
“A lot of the culture on campus leads students to end up going into the private sector,” said Wilson School concentrator Juston Forte ’20.
Forte explained that the private sector is more glorified than the public sector because private sector jobs are seen as more competitive.
Prior to enrolling at the University, Forte did not consider entering consulting or finance, which are popular industries amongst University students. However, after he witnessed several of his peers line up consulting interviews, he felt “a slight pressure” to enter the field.
Forte mentioned programs within the Wilson Schol that offer internship opportunities such as Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) but said that the process to find jobs is decentralized.
“You have to take your own initiative,” he said. “Since there’s not dialogue about [job opportunities] on campus, it’s much more difficult to keep up with the application process.”
Others cited the financial allure of private sector work.
For Wilson School concentrator Frishta Abdul Wali ’19, finances play a heavy role in the decision of where to work. She added that prospective federal applicants with few connections would face difficulties getting hired.
“I’m the one who’s kind of supposed to stand on my own feet and pick up my family,” she said.
Abdul Wali said that Wilson School concentrators are “trained to be versatile in whatever field you want to go work for.”
“Maybe they can create a track that actually guides you towards public service,” she said.
However, Ricky Gill ’09, Wilson School undergraduate alumnus and current Special Assistant at the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO), said that the Wilson School’s “unique cross-disciplinary program” was the main reason he chose to attend the University. He believed the program would allow him to enter public service.
“I’ve always felt public service was a noble calling,” he said.
In his current position managing the construction of embassies, Gill reports directly to OBO’s director on real estate and capital projects overseas. The office works to place U.S. personnel abroad in safe and secure facilities.
In his University experience, he recalled many of his peers choosing graduate school or private sector work after graduation.
“The on-campus recruiting by private sector entities compared pretty favorably,” Gill said. “They were a robust presence on campus.”
In addition to accessible on-campus recruiting, Gill believed that financial considerations and Princeton’s proximity to New York were deciding factors for many undergraduates.
“I have umpteen friends who ended up in New York, and a lot of those jobs were finance-related, consulting-related, and so there was also that sort of peer momentum, if you will, towards New York,” he said.
Jennifer Jennings ’00, a University sociology and public affairs professor who majored in the Wilson School, said the problem of young people not working in government spans several decades, recalling the “sellout discourse” of her undergraduate days.
Those issues, she said, should and can be addressed. She advocated for programs such as SINSI, which offers undergraduate internships and graduate fellowships in the federal government, and Service Focus, an undergraduate program that places students in service-related courses and internships.
Jennings herself is a faculty mentor with Service Focus and leads an education cohort looking at lead exposure in schools.
She said that these programs are excellent resources in building a pathway to public service that sometimes isn’t very clear.
“It’s a problem that we’re going to keep chipping away at,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with many faculty across many departments about what we can be doing better as faculty to support students who want to take this path.”
Jennings said six-digit bank salaries are particularly coercive, especially considering the variety of backgrounds that students come from.
Though the postgraduate data indicated low matriculation into government jobs, Executive Director of Career Services Kimberly Betz emphasized that career paths are “long and winding,” and many people do not remain in the same jobs they took when they graduated.
“What we hope to do more when working with students is to provide them the education, background, and resources that they’re going to be needing throughout their careers as they change and grow,” she said.
Betz also said that many students who plan to go into government work, especially those who wish to work as judges, first attend graduate school. Public service, she added, is not confined to strictly government work and can entail “non-profit organizations and other areas.”
For SINSI co-director Rick Barton, it’s always necessary to make the many opportunities available in public service clear to people. Otherwise job prospects in public service can be somewhat unclear.
Barton also sees significant barriers to entry in government itself, including the way in which hiring decisions are made.
“Instead of leadership making difficult choices about what programs to keep and which ones to shrink, they often impose arbitrary management decisions like hiring freezes,” Barton said.
The result of these decisions, he argued, is an aging workforce with a lack of new talent.
“A second problem is that many of these jobs now need security clearances,” he added. “By nature they favor people who have had security clearances before. So that’s unintended discrimination against younger people.”
Nevertheless, he said students should also broaden the way they think about opportunities within government. He encouraged students to get started in local, county, and state governments, which can be great centers of innovation.
“Pursue programs like SINSI ... because we need you ...These are tough, tough jobs that make a difference,” he said.