Colleges and universities love talking about service. Their mission statements, fund-raising letters, and soaring commencement speeches all pivot around phrases like “promoting public welfare,” practicing “skills of citizenship and community,” and solving “local, national, and global challenges.” But how do we know whether or not these institutions actually make good on those grandiose promises?

The short answer is we don’t. Colleges make plenty of information available about their “inputs” (the SAT scores of incoming freshmen, say, or average class sizes) but little about their “outcomes” (for example, what their students go on to do with their lives). Nor does the federal government provide the public with such information (the higher education lobby makes sure of that). That’s a disservice to students and institutions, to the taxpayers who support them, and to society writ large.

The Washington Monthly’s annual college guide (published in the September/October issue) pulls together the public data that does exist on colleges’ commitment to promoting public service—the percentage of their students in ROTC; the number of their graduates who join the Peace Corps. But what we’d ideally like to know is the number of a school’s graduates who go on to serve their country and communities more broadly. That way, citizens could better judge which schools actually deliver on their lofty rhetoric and which don’t.

Fortunately, the burgeoning world of social media is beginning to challenge higher education’s data monopoly. At the networking site LinkedIn, for instance, millions of Americans advertise their professional accomplishments as well as their college alma maters. Using LinkedIn data, our team at the Aspen Institute was able to measure the top fifty national universities and top twenty liberal arts colleges (as ranked by the U.S. News & World Report) by the percent of their graduates entering public service—in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and public education—over the last ten years.


The results (see chart) are surprising. Only two of U.S. News’s top ten national universities are in our top ten*, edged out by places like Brandeis, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester. The overlap on liberal arts colleges is a little closer: five of U.S. News’s top ten (Swarthmore, Pomona, Carleton, Wellesley, and Haverford) make our top ten. But U.S. News’s number one liberal arts college, Williams, is only number sixteen on our list. And not counting the service academies, whose graduates by definition go into public service, our top-ranking school, Grinnell, ranks just number seventeen on the U.S. News list.

So what are our top schools doing right? And what’s changed since back in the day when the Ivys were seen as stepping stones for students who wanted to go into public service or launch a career in government? One factor, perhaps, is that the most prestigious Ivy League schools are now the primary target for Wall Street recruiters—a species that was not so prevalent a few decades ago. But another factor is that the leading schools on our list didn’t get there by accident. All of them actively cultivated cultures of service on campus, and then built the financial and programmatic infrastructure to support students’ trajectories in service after graduation.


Those deliberate efforts are one of the reasons why we see such disparities in students’ career choices between schools that seem otherwise similar from the outside. Why, for example, does Brown clock in at a respectable sixth place, with 27.3 percent of its graduates going into public service, while Penn slides in at number forty-one, with less than 19 percent pursuing such careers? Why does the College of William & Mary, our number-one-ranked national university, do so much better than Washington and Lee, when both are old, prestigious Virginia schools within driving distance of D.C.? And why does the California Institute of Technology come in at number twelve, when MIT, geographically more in the D.C. orbit, is so close to the bottom of our ranking?

Here’s a cheat sheet on what works.

Create a culture and tradition of service.

Colleges, like other institutions, have unique cultures, and those cultures can be shaped by the words and deeds of their leaders. At George Washington University (the number two national university on our list), President Steven Knapp has made service a “Presidential Priority,” and in the school’s recent strategic plan nearly a third of the listed objectives fell under the category of “Citizenship and Leadership.”

At Grinnell College, students are encouraged to apply for programs like the Grinnell Corps, a postgraduate volunteer fellowship—or “private Peace Corps,” as it’s known—financed by the school. Former President George Drake, himself a Grinnell alum, practiced what his college preached: after retiring from his twelve-year tenure at the university, he joined the Peace Corps with his wife.

At Smith College, faculty and administrators hold up service-oriented Smith alumni, like Senator Tammy Baldwin or Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, as examples of success. The school also encourages alums to help connect recent grads to entry-
level opportunities in their fields.

Don’t let it end with afterschool volunteer work.

Of course, fostering a culture and tradition of service isn’t enough on its own. Colleges and universities must also provide undergraduates with opportunities to serve, both on campus and beyond, while sending a clear message that service should not end at the entry level. The colleges and universities that topped our list provided robust co-curricular community service and academic service-learning opportunities, and also supported them financially and programmatically—like with the Grinnell Corps—after graduation.

At Brown University, for example, more than 1,600 students participated in the school’s Careers in Common Good program last year, which provides a network and advising platform to help students “explore ways to craft a career that makes a difference.” A couple of years earlier, in 2010, roughly 1,500 students at the University of Chicago signed up for that school’s Careers in Public and Social Service program, designed to help students navigate the public service job market after graduation. While corporate recruiters excel at making the career case to young graduates, public- and social-sector employers lag far behind—and schools can help bridge that gap.

Underwrite service.

It’s an unpleasant fact that choosing a career in public service often requires a willingness to make less money. That’s why many of the schools that perform well on our index use what Radhika Singh Miller, senior program manager at Equal Justice Works, calls “career kick starters”: grants for internships and postgraduate fellowships in the public interest sector. At William & Mary, community engagement grants and yearlong post-graduation fellowships provide students with funding to participate in high-impact programs around the world. At Haverford College, young alumni in the Haverford House Program receive a year’s worth of free housing in downtown Philadelphia if they work for a nonprofit organization. And at Carleton College, students are awarded grants for working at NGO internships both domestically and abroad.

There are, of course, many different ways of slicing schools’ achievements. Some of the great colleges and universities that top the Washington Monthly’s annual college rankings—like the University of California, San Diego, which ranked number one on the 2013 list, in large part because it successfully recruits and graduates lower-income students—don’t distinguish themselves on this one. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that careers of service often require sacrificing compensation—an option that’s less immediately available to less affluent student bodies. Moreover, schools that do a superior job channeling their graduates to become entrepreneurs, engineers, primary care doctors, and others in the private sector also serve the public interest and deserve commendation.

But our goal in this index is a narrower one: to celebrate the success of the institutions that are doing a great job shepherding students into public service careers, and to motivate similar progress at more of our nation’s colleges and universities. With colleges and universities receiving tens of billions of dollars in direct public support, and billions more in the form of tax write-offs to donors, all of us already have a dog in this fight.

*Update: this sentence has been corrected, reflecting the fact that Brown is also in the Ivy League.

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