The data, obtained exclusively by POLITICO, show that Foreign Service employees with degrees from Ivy League schools have significantly better odds of earning a promotion early in their careers than colleagues who lack such credentials. At one point in the department’s career hierarchy, their odds are more than 20 percent higher.
Foreign Service employees with degrees from colleges in and around the D.C. area, several of which offer famed international relations programs, also are significantly more likely to be promoted at some early stages of their careers when compared to colleagues without such degrees.
According to the data from the Government Accountability Office, the odds favored both such groups even when controlling for other factors, such as race and gender. But the apparent advantage fades the higher up a Foreign Service staffer climbs.
As the face of America abroad, the State Department has long drawn criticism for being dominated by white men, especially in senior jobs, and it has made regular pushes to remedy its racial and gender imbalances. Advocates say gender and racial diversity is crucial for projecting American values, incorporating different perspectives and for better connecting with communities in other countries.
The new statistics shed light on an aspect of workforce diversity — educational background — that has gotten less attention. The data also raise questions about what sorts of advantages certain college graduates may have once entering the Foreign Service and how that could affect retention rates.
State Department veterans were intrigued but not entirely surprised by the numbers. They defended the department’s promotions process, however, saying it was structured to avoid certain biases. They pointed to other factors. Several noted, for instance, that anyone who survives the intense admissions contests at Ivy League schools probably has a knack for touting their accomplishments — a handy skill during promotions season.
“If you’re organized and you can write better than somebody else, you can market yourself better than someone else. And most of the Ivy League graduates do well,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of State for management. “But as time goes on, that education advantage gets replaced by on-the-job experience.”
For decades, the State Department’s diplomats were a largely homogenous crew.
In November 1936, the Foreign Service Journal published what was described as a register of career members of the service. Of the 701 people, 699 were men and two were women, according to research shared by Harry Kopp, an author of books on U.S. diplomacy. Judging by the photos, all appeared to be white.
A few years later, in June 1940, the Journal published a list of where “college men in the Foreign Service” had earned bachelor’s degrees. Roughly 25 percent of the 850 officers had attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
At the time, the department seemed concerned with swatting down attacks on the Foreign Service as a snobby “striped-pants brigade” that lacked toughness. The “editors’ column” in that issue not only denounced the notion that a “Harvard clique” ran much of the department, it also bemoaned stereotypes about Harvard grads.
“Since Harvard is synonymous in many minds, however unjustly, with tea-drinking, peculiarities of speech, and sartorial affectations, it is perhaps responsible for the persistent impression in certain areas of the United States that Foreign Service Officers are not as ‘American’ as they should be,” the authors wrote.
A post-World War II push to diversify the State Department was more focused on geography – meaning the department sought recruits from places other than the U.S. Northeast. “There was some boasting in the 1950s about the number of officers coming in who were graduates of enormous state universities,” said Kopp, himself a former Foreign Service officer.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the focus shifted toward increasing racial and gender diversity in the Foreign Service. At the time, women faced what now seem like bizarre barriers. Until 1972, they were expected to resign from the Foreign Service if they got married.
The department has made concerted diversity pushes over the past 20 years in particular, in part through fellowships and other recruitment programs.
But over the years, the phrase “pale, male and Yale” or similar sayings have been used by critics, including U.S. officials, to describe the State Department and other government bodies that deal with national security and foreign policy.
This past January, the GAO released a deep study on diversity at the State Department, including how race, ethnicity and gender matched with promotion rates. The study covered fiscal years 2002 through 2018, touching three presidential administrations.
It painted a mixed picture, but in general, the study found lower promotion rates for racial or ethnic minorities than for whites, and differences in such rates for women compared to men, depending on the subset.
One factor the GAO controlled for in examining how race, ethnicity and gender affected promotions was where a particular staffer had earned an academic degree. That sort of information is hard to find and not something the State Department usually publicizes.
Although they did not highlight it in the January report, the GAO’s experts had analysis of the data that showed how having earned a degree from an Ivy League university matched with promotion rates for State’s Foreign Service officers and specialists. The GAO also had similar data for Foreign Service employees who had earned degrees from colleges in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
The GAO found that an Ivy League graduate seeking to be promoted from Class 4 to Class 3 had 22.5 percent higher odds of moving up than a fellow Foreign Service employee without such a degree. That person had 12.6 percent higher odds of moving from Class 3 to Class 2 than one without the Ivy credential.
Ivy League grads seeking further upward movement – from Class 2 to Class 1 and then to the executive level – did not have any statistically significant advantage, the study found.
The trends were a bit less straightforward for Foreign Service employees with degrees from colleges in D.C. and surrounding areas.
Those staffers did not appear to have statistically better odds than colleagues without such degrees when moving from Class 4 to Class 3. But they had 10 percent higher odds in moving from Class 3 to Class 2 and 11.4 percent higher odds in moving from Class 2 to Class 1. The advantage vanished after that, the data show.
The GAO counted both undergraduate and graduate degrees in running through the data; it’s common for a Foreign Service employee to have a graduate degree. In considering whether a person’s alma mater may have influenced their promotion, the GAO controlled for a range of other factors, including age when hired at State, linguistic ability, gender and race.
As is standard in such studies, the GAO notes that it cannot definitively prove that having a particular degree is the cause of a promotion. But the numbers nonetheless show whether there are noteworthy correlations.
‘The Boston-D.C. corridor’
According to the GAO, roughly 9 percent of the 23,160 Foreign Service staffers whose careers were examined from 2002 through 2018 had a degree from one of the eight Ivy League institutions, which along with Princeton, Yale and Harvard include Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.
Nearly 28 percent of the Foreign Service employees had a degree from a school in Washington, D.C., or other institutions in Maryland and Virginia. Several D.C.-area schools offer prominent international relations programs, such as Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
A chart shared with POLITICO by the State Department shows that of the top 25 feeder schools to its Foreign Service ranks, only two are Ivy League institutions (Harvard and Columbia). The top three feeder schools were Georgetown, American and George Washington. Roughly half were public universities.
The data provided by State had specifications: it counted the school where Foreign Service staffers — either specialists or generalists — had earned their highest degree; it lumped together all campuses of a university system, such as the massive University of California; and it covered only staffers who had applied after calendar year 2013 and were hired.
On the one hand, the chart shows how far the Foreign Service has come from the days when it was largely the domain of a handful of elite Northeast private schools. At the same time, the data raise more questions about why Ivy League graduates seem to have a leg up in promotions.
Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the State Department has repeatedly touted its commitment to diversity. But there are signs of a regression on that front, especially in the department’s upper ranks, where there are few racial and ethnic minority faces. Another example: the vast majority of State Department special envoys appointed by the Trump administration are men.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – a former congressman from Kansas who grew up in California and has degrees from West Point and Harvard Law – has on multiple occasions said the State Department needs to be more geographically diverse.
The department “represents America to the world, so our team should reflect the millions of Americans outside the Boston-D.C. corridor,” Pompeo tweeted in March 2019.
His statements puzzled U.S. diplomats, who noted that their colleagues appeared to hail from all across America. It’s possible that Pompeo was conflating where staffers went to college with where they grew up. A spokesperson told POLITICO that “no data on State Department employees’ hometown of origin is collected or available.”
Scrubbing the promotions process
Several Foreign Service veterans said they’ve found the promotions process to be relatively fair in recent decades, in part because it is structured to be largely blind to factors such as race, gender and schooling. The State Department spokesperson echoed that, adding that the process hasn’t changed much in many years.
Toward the start of the promotions process, staffers, in a narrative format, list their achievements over the previous year on a special form. Their immediate supervisor weighs in on the form with thoughts about the staffer’s performance and potential. Then their supervisor’s boss (or someone higher up) weighs in with thoughts.
The staffer and supervisors are instructed to avoid mentioning characteristics of the staffer such as their race, schooling or pre-Foreign Service work experience. Staffers and supervisors are even discouraged from using terms like “vivacious,” which hints at gender. But they can use pronouns like “he” or “she” as well as staffers’ names, which could signal gender and, in some cases, race or ethnicity.
The forms that include all three of those statements are forwarded to a promotion board, which consists of several volunteer Foreign Service members and a member of the public. Those boards review their batch of evaluations and rank the people in each batch.
But before those forms reach a promotion board, an internal review panel “scrubs” them of any inadmissible comments, such as remarks on a staffer’s looks. And while the promotion boards get access to some personnel data, it’s limited and does not include where staffers went to school.
Ultimately, the number of people who get promoted from one rank to another depends on how many slots are available, figures determined by human resources and other officials.
State Department alumni said they rarely witnessed any favoritism in the Foreign Service based on where someone had attended college. For one thing, joining the Foreign Service is such a rigorous process – often involving a written test, oral assessments and more – that it’s presumed that anyone who makes the cut is capable.
A Foreign Service officer — or generalist — typically refers to a staffer engaging in duties such as political analysis. Foreign Service specialists handle specific types of roles such as providing security or information technology.
There are little things that might give an early edge in promotions to a Foreign Service staffer whose path went through an Ivy League institution or certain D.C.-area colleges, some said. Those things tend to center on familiarity, polish and presentation.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s 35-year Foreign Service career included serving as the State Department’s top human resources official. She has traveled to many colleges and even high schools to discuss her work and attract more diverse recruits.
She found that many students at Ivy League or other prominent colleges — and even at private high schools — already knew about the Foreign Service and how it worked. Some are angling for State Department internships, which offer an opportunity to network.
That’s not the case for many students at other U.S. educational institutions. Thomas-Greenfield herself earned her undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University, but didn’t know about the Foreign Service until years later.
“I fell into it,” she said. “I’ve had colleagues who’ve said ‘I’ve wanted to be in the Foreign Service since I was in the third grade.’”
The State Department has a “Diplomats in Residence” program that sends Foreign Service employees to colleges throughout the country so they can recruit students and help them understand U.S. diplomacy. But the most prominent former U.S. diplomats —the ones whose names were often in the news but who may not have technically been members of the Foreign Service — tend to land at places like Harvard and Yale.
Because undergraduate admissions to Ivies and similar schools are highly competitive — especially for students without financial or family connections — those accepted tend to be solid writers who can present, and promote, themselves well.
“My best guess would be that people who go to these elite schools have an advantage that maybe comes from what they’ve learned but probably is baked in a bit earlier,” said Kopp, who earned degrees from Hamilton College and Yale.
It’s notable, though, that many people who enter U.S. diplomacy have graduate or other advanced degrees. According to data given to POLITICO by the State Department, 77 percent of Foreign Service officers (the generalists) over the past 10 years have had graduate or other advanced degrees, and the median age of a new Foreign Service officer is 33.
“In my experience, many Foreign Service officers who have an Ivy League degree come from diverse backgrounds, rather than stereotypically privileged backgrounds,” former U.S. diplomat Molly Montgomery said. “Many have completed master’s programs or even doctorates, and the admissions programs for those are much more based on academic achievement than maybe undergraduate admissions.”
The State Department spokesperson said diversity will remain a priority.
“We view diversity in the broadest sense,” the spokesperson said, “not only encompassing attributes such as ethnicity, race, and gender, but also disability, regional diversity, education, and veteran’s status.”