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August 20, 2009 11:38 AM A Note on Teach for America

By Erin Dillon

In its 2006 college guide, the Washington Monthly reported on the incredible growth of Teach for America, the program that recruits top graduating seniors for two-year stints in low-income, low-performing schools across the country. With an acceptance rate so low that it rivals the most competitive colleges, the organization had made TFA a coveted credential—and teaching a popular profession—among students graduating from the most prestigious universities in the country. TFA, the article said, had “turned national service into a status symbol.”

Three years later, TFA is thriving. With Wall Street no longer offering absurdly high-paying investment banking jobs to twenty-one-year-old Yale graduates, applications to the program are way up. In 2009, 11 percent of all Ivy League seniors applied to be a corps member, and TFA was the number one employer at schools like Georgetown University, Spelman College, and the University of Chicago. The program’s size has swelled from 2,400 corps members in 2006 to 4,100 would-be teachers in 2009, a 70 percent increase.

TFA has also broadened its recruiting beyond the elite schools it started out with. Among this year’s Washington Monthly College Guide institutions, 46 percent of the liberal arts colleges and 74 percent of the universities contributed at least one TFA member. TFA has also focused on increasing the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its members, and recruits heavily from historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions.

Despite its broadening reach, though, TFA remains, by design, an institution focused on recruiting the best and the brightest. Its participation rates among colleges and universities are significantly driven by which institutions it decides to invest in with on-campus recruiters and marketing to students. For this reason, the Washington Monthly has never included TFA service in its overall service rankings, and we didn’t this year, either. Our rankings aim to tease out the decisions the institutions themselves make to promote public service. Including TFA would disadvantage schools with a strong service commitment but lacking the TFA corps’ 1300-plus average SAT score.

Still, we didn’t want to completely ignore the admirable service commitment made by TFA corps members. So we calculated the rankings again, this time with TFA participation added in.

Many of the Ivy League and other elite institutions in our rankings score relatively low in other service measures, hurting their overall rankings. But when TFA participation is added, these institutions jump to the top. Yale, for example, has no ROTC members on its campus, but has one of the highest rates of participation in TFA. With TFA included, Yale moves from twenty-third to fifth in the rankings. The same story is true for other elite institutions—Harvard, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Chicago all move into the top ten once TFA is included, pushing out many of our top public universities.

Among liberal arts colleges, adding TFA creates a slightly different impact. Our top colleges stay pretty much the same, with a few exceptions: Berea College, a small institution with a mission to serve first-generation, low-income students, moves into the top ten thanks to the four graduates who joined TFA. Spelman College, where 25 percent of the class of 2009 applied to TFA, moves from twenty-first to thirteenth in the rankings. Other women’s colleges also do better when TFA is added in—Scripps College, Mount Holyoke College, and Wellesley College all move up with TFA included.

While TFA’s focus on recruiting high-performing students from elite institutions may exclude them from our rankings, the immense impact of the organization shouldn’t be ignored. Teach for America has changed the face of national service by providing a way for our sharpest and most ambitious students to enhance their resumes while giving something back to their country.

Erin Dillon is a senior policy analyst at Education sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.