Politics & Policy

The Pitfalls of Civil Service U

Hillary Clinton and Arlen Specter are wrongheaded village people.

How’s this for a bad idea: What if we took an activity at which the U.S. private sector leads the world and we see if the government can do half as well at higher cost? Welcome to the proposed U.S. Public Service Academy.

Bipartisan luminaries such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) on Thursday reintroduced a bill calling for the creation of a new academy, modeled on the existing military academies. It would provide roughly 5,000 undergraduates with a paid education in exchange for a commitment to five years in public service, post-graduation.

The goal of drawing students into public service is a worthy one. There are forecasts of ample vacancies in the federal ranks in coming years as existing employees retire. But did the dozens of distinguished co-sponsors notice that we already have a highly successful higher education system in this country? Students come from around the world to partake of it, then often head back to serve in leadership roles.

Rep. James P. Moran (D., Va.) was quoted as blaming the cost of higher education for steering graduates toward better-compensated private-sector work. That would suggest two far more appealing solutions: First, create a competitive government service where talented civil servants are rewarded and promoted. Second, provide scholarships for students to attend existing universities with the requirement of public service to follow.

The estimated operating costs (start-up costs would be extra) of the new Public Service Academy would be roughly $200 million per year. That works out to about $40,000 per student. According to the College Board, the average resident undergraduate at a private institution now pays $33,300 annually, including tuition, room and board, and a host of other expenses

So why not create a cadre of Clinton-Specter Scholars around the country? An institution such as the National Science Foundation could award the money to the best and brightest applicants who apply. The recipients could spread out and study with the nation’s top scholars across the vast array of topics offered in our universities, then join the government, at least for a time. It is no coincidence that many of the current world leaders with U.S. degrees came on scholarships from their countries’ governments.

The existing proposal, instead, draws on popular admiration for our military-service academies. There are a couple of good reasons for those academies, however, that just don’t apply for the civil service. The military requires specialized knowledge of a sort that is unlikely to be widely available at existing higher-education institutions. Everyone at West Point is supposed to learn the basic duties of a commissioned officer. There is a real value to a common understanding of this among the heart of our officer corps. In all likelihood, these prospective soldiers could get better training in engineering at MIT or Caltech, but, for an officer, academic prowess in a subject is of secondary importance behind military prowess.

For civil servants their academic expertise will be paramount. They will end up working on diplomacy, intellectual property law, meteorology, agricultural policy, or local urban planning. The educational challenge of offering high-quality courses across such a tremendous array of topics would be immense. (To meet this challenge, the proposed Public Service Academy would be administered by that repository of management and educational expertise, the Department of Homeland Security).

A second argument for our military-service academies is that one needs to build an esprit de corps among young men and women who will go on to serve together. That argument doesn’t carry much weight when graduates won’t be serving together. Public Service Academy grads would not only spread out among the many branches of the federal government, but also among state and local governments.

This is not to say that the proposal is entirely without virtue. A Public Service Academy would offer the opportunity for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a chance for legislators to play a visible sponsorship role every year in backing student candidates from their states or districts. It could also present the enticing prospect of an annual “Army vs. Civil Servants” football game. None of these, though, merit forsaking the country’s flourishing higher-education system for a new government-run training center.

Philip Levy is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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