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The Dartmouth
April 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Polka-Dot Umbrella Plan

When I was younger, I dreamt of becoming a polka-dot umbrella. While my peers fixated on occupations in banking, archeology, and other fields, I aspired to "protect people from the rain" professionally. My parents and teachers temporarily indulged this umbrella fantasy, before explaining that future jobs should a) posses a decent outlook, b) provide reasonable returns on the financial investment of a college education and c) be physically possible.

In other words, becoming a polka-dot umbrella was not a viable option. My underlying "protect people from the rain" mentality, however, gradually matured into ambitions of a career in public service.

According to an article in USA Today earlier this month, public service industries will soon experience severe staff shortages: Federal and university projections predict a shortage of 2 million public school teachers and 500,000 nurses in the next two decades and 200,000 government positions in the next two years ("Programs help with tuition in exchange for public service," Nov. 18).

For many students, however, a career in public service is a difficult choice considering the financial investment in their education. Indeed, one friend recently abandoned his passion for public service in favor of a more "practical" field because of "strains" on his family's finances.

The average new college graduate owes almost $22,000 in student loans, making starting salaries a key deterrent from a career in public service. Monthly loan payments of $600 spur graduates such as my friend to abandon their dreams for financial stability. It comes as no surprise that, according to the USA Today article, financial implications are "a major barrier" in attracting young, talented graduates to public service, compounding the field's increasing staff shortage.

But in light of current and projected job deficits across the country, various universities have created new initiatives to nudge otherwise reluctant or financially wary graduates into public service. Such programs assist students financially in exchange for public service work after graduation.

This fall, Princeton began offering free masters degrees for students who pursue two-year federal government jobs after graduation. Starting in 2010, Harvard Law School will waive the $41,500 third-year student tuition for students willing to commit five years to a government or non-profit field after graduation. Tufts currently offers loan payment assistance to all graduates in exchange for public service work.

I commend these new initiatives because they help attract and retain innovative, talented students such as my friend who would otherwise abandon or overlook public service jobs because of financial constraints.

Princeton recently hosted an institutional conference of 24 other colleges and universities in the hopes of expanding these programs. Congress is even considering a public service equivalent of the ROTC, to be known as the "Roosevelt Scholars" program, which would provide graduates with full tuition, room and board, and spending stipends for completing a federal agency internship and three years in some government agency after graduation.

Passing the Roosevelt Scholars program bill and expanding institutional incentives for students pursuing public service is crucial to expanding the pool of potential public servants. Governmental and institutional incentives will allow graduates to indulge their "protect people from the rain" passions while shielding their families from current and future economic storms.