Is Higher Education Valued in Public Service?

On NPR recently, U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about the value of higher education for those working in public service. Within the context of a discussion about the changes in the financial aid lending to students, Secretary Duncan noted that our public sector workers needed graduate levels of education to be fully prepared for their positions. How many public sector agencies truly value advanced degrees, though, in today’s times?

Looking back a decade or two, one realizes that prior advancement opportunities in state and local government included an education factor. To become a manager or to advance to senior leadership, a minimum of a Master’s degree was required and doctoral preparation was preferred in some specific disciplines. This was part of the professionalism of public service. Earning an advanced degree just about guaranteed that a conferee had achieved the skills and competencies required to lead the more complex government agencies of the day.

Sometime in the last decade, however, many departments and agencies devalued higher education. In some cases, supplemental payments for advanced degrees were decreased or eliminated. Degrees were no longer considered in promotions. It seemed to matter less what someone had learned and could practice changing workplace approaches, and more about how they could perform on a standardized test and how long they had warmed a seat. Advanced skills and competencies were no longer valued.

Today, that complexity is growing even more pressing, and resource allocation in a time of scarcity requires even greater advanced skills in our public sector workforce. Similarly, increased reliance on technology and public participation in issues of governance call for leadership that understands more than the basic principles and theories we may have relied upon in the field. Advances in the global community require leaders who can think critically, analyze thoroughly but without paralysis, and act inclusively to solve local, national and global problems.

Is our public sector workforce ready for this challenge? A fear stated by many who are ready to retire and pass the torch of leadership is that the upcoming generations, hired and advanced in a time when education was not in the forefront of budget-setters’ minds, is that they do not have the same education-based professional approach. They may not have the abilities required in tomorrow’s public sector organizations. While they have skills learned on the job, they have not been given the opportunity to increase their knowledge, the breadth, scope and depth that a Master’s degree or beyond will help them attain.

We cannot solve complex problems in society or meet the needs of our communities with the same degree of success without managers and leaders who have advanced degrees. As we become concerned about filling vacancies and promoting from within, it would serve our constituencies well if we considered rewarding graduate education once again. If, as Secretary Duncan has said, education is “the most pressing issue facing America,” we cheat both our workers and our communities out of skills and talent if we do not emphasize higher education advancement in our public sector institutions.

By Yvonne J. Kochanowski, DPA, MBA


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