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Has HKS Lost Its Way? (Article)

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I'm thinking of applying to HKS next year but just read the following long form article on the effectiveness of HKS. Some points are unduly harsh and off base. Is it really a problem that more grads go into the private sector? Yet, some points he makes seem valid. What do you think?


Even HKS's own Crimson has weighed in:


What are you looking to achieve with an MPP/MPA?

Edited by Valencia SF
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I didn't attend HKS, but I know people who did, and I hold a public policy master's (from Syracuse) and now work in government.  I disagree with some of the premises of in the article.  I don't think it's easy to teach leadership in the classroom, and I personally wouldn't want to attend a master's program that was primarily focused on teaching soft skills.  I don't think it's bad to teach economics or quant.  You need those skills for many jobs in government, and I think it would be foolish to attend a program that lacked those components.  From what I can tell, HKS doesn't require less political science coursework than other public policy programs.  Syracuse's MPA had one course in this area, and I thought it was very valuable and just the right amount of political science for the degree program.

There's nothing wrong with students going into the private sector if that's what they want.  If indeed HKS is actively telling students that "you can make more of a difference in the private sector" - yeah I would find that a bit problematic and simplistic.  Public sector jobs have their frustrations, and I can absolutely understand people who choose to go to the private sector, but we as a society need more good people in government, and good people can and do make a difference.  On a side note, one of the things I loved about Syracuse was being surrounded by students and faculty who were truly committed to public service.  If that's not the case at HKS, that could be a disadvantage - it's nice to be around people with similar goals.

The main piece I agree with is that, given how much tuition HKS charges, if you are paying full freight, it's not conducive to building a career in public service.  Entering government with $140k in student debt is absurd.  So I would say think carefully about what your goals are and your own financial situation before attending (and consider MBAs if you're private sector oriented).  I have heard amazing things about HKS's career services, but I also wonder how much of the success of their alumni (and the alumni of any public policy school) is based on who they accept rather than the value they actually add.

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I'm entering the MPP program soon and during these months I've spoken to plenty of people who went to HKS. All of them loved it, many of them had to finance their education entirely. One of the people I've talked to works at government, other works at McKinsey and yet another is a consultant for a small company that advises governments across the world in implementation. All of them swear by the school. They all agree that the impressive roster of speakers throughout the year is incredibly formative. One of my interviewees told me that the leadership and negotiation classes were among the best he ever took (this coming from a MBA background). Another mentioned that the hidden value comes from the classes where you have mates which have, for example, been ministers in South American nations, or human right activists in south-east Asia.  The career advancement services is impressive from what I've seen.

I would agree that the price and lack of financing options is a huge problem, though.

The article is unfair and its arguments mudded, which is unfortunate because this is a discussion worth having.


Edited by datik
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I read the article again, and I really disagree with the idea that economics and quant skills are superfluous in government work.  Yes, you may very well end up in a job where you yourself do not do a lot of quantitative or economic analysis.  But you still need to understand stats and econ well enough to be a consumer of it and to understand its limits.  You don't want to be that agency/department director who throws around terms like "statistical significance" without really knowing what they mean.  The more I think about it, the more the article seems like a hit piece with more innuendo than substantive points.

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Damn, sounds like that author had an axe to grind. I have plenty of criticisms of policy programs and I thought the article brought up some interesting points, like the trend of policy students preferring the private sector, and the perhaps too-cozy relationship between HKS and some powerful people (I witnessed this to a degree at SAIS). But the tone was really over-the-top, and some of the logical leaps were a bit specious.

The article argued that HKS has somehow lost its way, but it never really defined what this superior prior era was, other than suggesting there might have been fewer econ courses back then - which is not a good thing, IMHO.  

It's not an indictment of HKS that a few of its students later went on to do bad things. The author specifically mentioned Donald Heathfield, the Russian spy - well he fooled the US government into giving him citizenship while posing as a native-born Canadian who mysteriously happened to have a slight slavic accident (and the citizenship process involves in-person interviews, for the record), and Harvard revoked his degree after the arrest. Mentioning Heathfield twice as some kind of black mark against HKS just seems like mudslinging. 

I'm also not sure how the traditional MPP program having a 20% acceptance rate versus the law school's 16% somehow means that HKS has "abandoned America." The one-year mid-career program that the author speculates may have an acceptance rate closer to 50% probably is a prestige vehicle/cash cow, but that's true of a lot of similar one-year professional programs (see: the executive MBA). Not great, but not damning evidence that HKS has lost its way, in my view.

I think the article actually missed an opportunity to delve into how HKS and other policy programs have changed over time without all the cheap shots. The degree's price tag could have been discussed in more depth, as @MaxwellAlum mentioned, as well as the slow, arduous federal hiring process. Those two things combined are what drove me to the private sector - I have friends who got Presidential Management Fellowships who still weren't placed in full-time fed roles a year after graduation because of bureaucracy and security clearance BS.

It could have also discussed the proliferation of government contractors in greater depth - many of my friends work in the "private sector" but spend all their time on government contracts. In the case of development contractors, they're often making less money than they would be if they were working directly for USAID, so the decision to go private is hardly one motivated by greed. 

And unless I missed it, I didn't see comparisons of enrollment figures between now and 20, 30, 40 years ago. I would bet that HKS has expanded pretty rapidly since then, and this I could see as a real criticism of the school, as well as other policy programs. By the end of my time at SAIS, I felt that the bottom 10-20% of the class could have easily been cut without any negative effects on classroom discussion (in some cases, there might have been an improvement), and watching many people struggle to find employment after we graduated only underscored that belief. Even at a relatively elite master's program, there was still a fair amount of dead weight, but the school probably needed those students' tuition dollars, which often come via loans. I think it's ethically dubious to take advantage of young people's idealism in this way. These schools admit so many students who will spend the rest of their lives drowning in debt for degrees that get then mid-5-figure salaries in one of the highest cost of living cities in the country. 



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Not to be the dirty economist, but I suspect that, if becoming a DC staffer wasn't such a long, arduous, and viciously underpaid process, most of the HKS grads that are going into consulting would elect to go to Washington. Sigh, people need shelter and food and to pay off those 6 figure student loans. And not to be a let down to vaunted public service, but sometimes I sit at my desk and wonder if the private sector wouldn't be more effective at doing what we do. But then I remember that we are satisfying an externality and not just throwing public funds after the ghost of JFK.

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If I'm reading the article correctly, it's main argument seems to be: 

Premise 1: Our system of federal government is broken as both parties appear "antagonistic and hopeless."

Premise 2: HKS (and I would guess similarly run programs by implication) have stressed quant classes, invited big name practitioners to give lectures, and encouraged students to look at non-profit and for-profit employment in addition to the public sector positions it had traditionally advocated.

Conclusion: Because many graduates work for private businesses such as consulting firms, HKS (and similar programs) has neglected its obligation to contribute to the public interest and its graduates have behaved in their own self interest rather than in the public interest. In doing so, they are locking in the problems of the status quo.


As a couple of you point out above, this argument seems as though it can be weakened by pointing out that neither HKS nor its graduates have control over the size of the federal government nor its hiring process. HKS did not shut down the federal government in 2013, nor did it impose federal pay freezes in 2011-13 and then hiring freezes in 2017. The author does not stop to consider whether it would be irresponsible for the program to push 100% of its graduates toward a terrible job market. 


I tend to see premise 1 as valid. However, I find it amusing that while the author of this article seems to blame HKS for a significant share of that issue, a professor from the midwest seems to see another school as having influence over public policy that the author may have overlooked.

From an address to graduates of Chicago Booth in 2016:

"Ten to 20 years down the road, you will be leaders within the business community. As such, you will also be leaders within your relevant civic communities. And for many of you, your wealth—through your bribes, or “lobbying” as we tend to call it—will give you a tremendous amount of influence over policy makers. And when you exert that influence, you will tend to view the world through the lens of your circumstances and your experiences. 

When you do so, I want you to remember that you are rare relative to the typical American. Only a little over 30 percent of people your age ever get a bachelor’s degree. Less than 10 percent get a master’s degree or more. Very few of those get it from prestigious institutions such as the University of Chicago. As we have talked about, your labor-market experiences on average will be dramatically different from those of the bulk of the American population. Technology and other economic forces have affected others differently from you. Keeping that in mind will allow you to have a broader perspective on the world that you are trying to influence, and hopefully it will improve your decision making."




Edited by LeadTheTurn
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That article had a mission. Mission accomplished, kind of. It even got a response from Harvards dean! But, let’s be honest, it’s Harvard. So nothing to see here. Keep being awesome and creating opportunities for individuals that otherwise would not have those opportunities in any industry they want.

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