The Peace Corps' Shortage of Applicants

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The Peace Corps touts how many initial “applications” it receives, but this is a cover for the fact that there is currently no surplus of applicants who are medically qualified to become Peace Corps Volunteers. Only medically fit applicants can become Volunteers, so emphasizing the number of initial “applicant” pool is irrelevant and misleading.

Indeed, for the Peace Corps to tout the number of initial “applicants” – the number before the medical screening process – is intentionally misleading. The Peace Corps knows that applicants might not be interested in joining the Peace Corps if they knew that the agency is having trouble filling its slots.

The truth is that there is no selectivity at the Peace Corps – other than to determine if the applicant is ambulatory. 100% of the applicants who are medically fit are invited to training and service as a Volunteer.

Why It Matters That The Peace Corps Accepts Virtually All Medically Fit Applicants

This means that applicants who are medically fit have virtually unlimited leverage with the Peace Corps to control the placement process. They can insist on being sent to a country with a low early quit rates (posted in Wiki) and one with the best survey responses from the Volunteers (posted in Wiki). The Peace Corps cannot say – as if so often does – “if you don’t accept this offer, there might not be another.” When there is no surplus, that ruse is a hollow bluff. The Peace Corps has no surplus of applicants it can turn to if one applicant become selective and refuses to adhere to the script of the bureaucrats.

Applicants should have no fear insisting that they be placed in a country with a low early quit rate and strongly positive ratings from the Volunteers in the annual survey. With the Peace Corps all the power rests with the volunteer applicants. This is a case where the buyer is king. In the commercial marketplace, if there are many more sellers than buyers, the buyers are king. That’s the situation with the Peace Corps application process.

The Peace Corps has tacitly acknowledged this situation with its recent statement that it will now – as it never has before – seek to honor the country and program requests of the applicants, seek to expedite the onerous medical screening process, and otherwise cater to the applicants. It would never do this if it weren’t forced to do so by a shortage of applicants. See http://www.peacecorps.gov/media/forpress/press/2418/ for more information.

It appears that there is no only a shortage of applications but that the number of Peace Corps Volunteers in the field is declining in real terms. In 2009 there were 4188 Volunteers who entered service, in 2010 it was 4338, in 2011 it was only 3431, and in 2012 it was 2871. This implies that the problem is worse than the absence of a surplus; the Peace Corps is contracting. It’s in decline.

Would an individual want to attend a college that could barely fill its Freshman class and accepted 100% of the applicants? Or is not able to fill its Freshman class? What would this lack of selectivity mean in terms of the quality of their classmates and the value of the degree?

How Many Medically Fit Applicants Are Invited to Serve?

Six years ago Peace Corps Wiki received data from the Peace Corps – via a FOIA request – that in FY 2007 the Peace Corps received 11,108 applications, but only 4,588 survived the medical and legal clearance process to become “qualified.” Of this pool, 4,408 were invited to training. This means that of this pool of “qualified” applicants, all but 180 or 96% were invited to training.

The ratio of those who were medically and legally cleared to those who were invited to training was 1.04 to 1. Pursuant to the same FOIA request, Peace Corps Wiki found that in FY 2008 the Peace Corps reports that it received 13,041 applications, but only 4,265 survived the medical and legal clearance process to become “qualified.” Of this pool, 4,123 were invited to training. This means that from this pool of “qualified” applicant, all but 142 or 96.7% were invited to training. The ratio of those who were medically cleared to those who were invited to training was 1.03 to 1.

When Peace Corps Wiki filed a FOIA request to update this data, it was absolutely clear what the Wiki wanted. Indeed, the Wiki cited the data it had previously received from the Peace Corps as the template for what it requested in the new request. Nonetheless, the Peace Corps dissembled for six months – repeatedly misconstruing the date that Wiki sought and forwarding the wrong data to the Wiki – in an obvious attempt to hide the embarrassing facts about the applicant pool shortage.

The Peace Corps finally complied with FOIA and provided current data that show that of the applicants who are medically fit in 2009 89% were invited to training and service, for 2010 it was 87%, for 2011 it was 90%, and for 2012 it was 99%. Indeed, in 2012, only 16 of the applicants who were found to be medically fit were not invited to training and service. Printed below is the table from which these percentages are derived.

A Shortage of Applicants Means a Lack of Selectivity

The lack of selectivity at the Peace Corps compares unfavorably with the acceptance rate for Teach for America, which also involves a two-year service commitment. In 2011 it received a record number of 48,000 applications. The organization selected 5,200 applicants to be teachers — 77 percent graduated this spring, 6 percent of them graduate students and 17 percent professionals. In 2010 the organization received 46,000 applications and had an acceptance rate of 12 percent. In 2008, it had just over 24,700 applications with an acceptance rate of nearly 15 percent.

The fact that the Peace Corps is not selective – other than for medical fitness – means that it is not able to select the applicants who have the greatest commitment to grassroots development assistance, those with the deepest experience in immersion in a foreign culture, or those with particularly useful skills. The absence of selectivity means that the Peace Corps is taking in many who will quit early – one explanation for the high, costly and embarrassing early quit rates.

The bottom line for applicants is clear. Applicants have power. They can insist that they be sent to a country with a low early quit rate and superior ratings from the Volunteers in the annual surveys. Peace Corps Wiki recommends that applicants insist on their requests and if they are not honored to put their applications on hold until they are honored.

How to Use This Information

The Peace Corps may complain that these are not the most current statistics, but rather than complain, it has the power to publish the most current statistics. It could admit that there is an application shortage. It could admit that it is not able to be selective, other than for medical fitness.

As for the Wiki, we have found securing data from the Peace Corps under the Freedom of Information Act to be so difficult and painful that we will not be filing additional FOIA requests to secure updates of the selectivity/application data.

Peace Corps Wiki urges applicants to request the most current data from their recruitment officer. (Applicants must always seek the percentage of applicants who have survived the medical screening process who are invited to training.) If the placement officer won’t provide the current statistics, applicants should put their applications on hold until the Peace Corps becomes transparent with applicants.

To be clear, the reason why Wiki is publishing this data is to encourage the Peace Corps to intervene to reform the poorly managed programs. If applicants use the data Wiki is providing to become selective, and use their power arising from the shortage of applicants, the Peace Corps may be forced to reform the poorly managed programs. Wiki is attempting to use market forces – consumer demand – to drive reform.

Applicants have power, both to secure an invitation to serve in a well managed country and also to encourage the Peace Corps to overhaul the poorly managed countries.