Kelman: A public service incentive

Government can attract young people by helping them pay down the debt they incurred as students

I have written several columns about the challenges the government faces trying to attract students such as those at my institution, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The school’s students are bright young people who are predisposed to public service. However, it has become an increasing struggle to attract them to government posts. Government inflicts some of the wounds on itself, such as untimely recruitment visits, an often extremely slow hiring process and some potential jobs that offer insufficient autonomy or lack creativity. Congress inflicts some of those wounds when salary caps for civil servants cascade to the salaries of skilled young professionals, making them dramatically uncompetitive with other offers they receive.

But there is an additional problem that is serious enough to be a crisis, and federal agencies have the power to address it. That problem is the enormous growth of student indebtedness.

In 1993, students at the Kennedy school left our master’s degree program with an average of about $23,500 in debt from their undergraduate and graduate studies. In 2006, that figure had increased by more than 300 percent to almost $77,000, a figure much higher than the inflation rate. Students constantly tell me when I bug them about working for the government that they are financially unable to take a government job because their income won’t be high enough to allow them to service that debt.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy school has conducted studies of students that show a strong, negative correlation between debt levels and entering public service.

We have established many programs to tackle the problem, such as free tuition for a number of incoming students each year who commit to a period of public service after graduation. We forgive Kennedy School loans for students who take a Presidential Management Fellowship.

But agencies can do something, too. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) sponsored legislation several years ago that permits agencies to pay off as much as $60,000 of an employee’s student loans at a rate of $10,000 a year for six years. If the employee leaves federal service before three years, he or she is required to pay back the loan repayments already received. The only catch is that there is no dedicated appropriation for this, so agencies must take such repayments from their normal salaries and expenses accounts. If an agency cares at all about the quality of its workforce and not just the quantity, this is a wise choice.

Some agencies are making that choice. In 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the Defense and Justice departments each helped more than 1,000 employees with loan repayments. The three other biggest users of the program were the State Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and Government Accountability Office. Information technology, contracting and program management  are career fields that would benefit from the use of such authority.

Helping early-career employees repay their student loans is something relatively painless that the government can do to attract young talent. Let’s go for it.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@

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