Peace Corps Enrollment 01

Peace Corps Applications Lowest In a Decade

Doing good is great, but young people want jobs

“Those who can’t find work, volunteer.” That was a popular idea during the height of the recession, but Vocativ has learned that the number of people applying to serve as volunteers in the Peace Corps is down 35 percent from 2009 and is now the lowest in a decade.

As the national unemployment rate hit a record high after the real estate market crash, so did the number of applications to the Peace Corps. 24 months in Tonga? No problem. Build a library in Burkina Faso? Why not. While college seniors scrambled to compete for few entry level jobs, the once for-hippies-only, life-postponing volunteer program offered an alternative stepping stone to adult life.

However, that is no longer the case, according to data on applicants and enrolled volunteers which Vocativ obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government.

Since seeing a record number of applications in 2009, the number of applicants to the competitive federal volunteer program have declined steadily from a high of 15,384 in 2009 to 10,091 in 2012–which is about 20 percent shy of the number of applications received in 2007, before the recession.

“Young people are now less likely to look to the Peace Corps for an alternative employment opportunity than they were before the recession,” says Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, a public policy organization in New York.

The job market is either picking up for college grads or today’s generation of heavily indebted degree holders–80 percent of Corps volunteers are college grads– can’t afford to postpone earning a wage, according to Ruetschlin.

“Does the economy affect the number of applications? I think we see that it does,” says Elizabeth Chamberlain at the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office.

“But it’s not as big a factor as you might think…[the Peace Corps] is not a quick-fix for someone who’s looking for a job,” says Chamberlain. The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment and many people have to gain additional work or volunteer experience to even qualify for projects involving healthcare or agriculture, according to Chamberlain.

While the Peace Corps does not publish its application numbers or an acceptance rate, records obtained by Vocativ show that roughly one-third of applicants each year go on to serve and the number of people entering the corps has stayed relatively stable.

As the young presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said to a crowd of students at University of Michigan in October 1960: ”How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers–how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” The answer may be fewer.

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  • I wonder if this dip in applicants might also reflect a change in attitude towards the Peace Corps. In 2011 there was a great deal of outrage around Peace Corps volunteers who had been raped while abroad. There has also been quite a bit of negative press around violence and robberies where Peace Corps volunteers are concerned.

    My final thought is that perhaps Peace Corps is no longer as powerful on a resume as it once was. While students try to gain applicable experience in a tough job market, a volunteering job as a community organizer is difficult to translate into anything except maybe graduate study. RPCV often struggle to find employment and many go directly back to school. I’d be interested to see the rate of employment for RPCV now as opposed to ten years ago.

  • Actually, Peace Corps _can_ help with that student debt. You can get loan deferrals and cancellation on many types of loans. ( While cancellation may be best, deferral is still nice, since when you come back, with experience, you have a better chance at a higher paying job due to your two years of international experience than you did when you first graduated with no experience.

    As for what Volunteers do, they help communities identify their needs and how to address them. They aren’t just unskilled farm labor, and many “locals” who have managed to get an education actually have a harder time affording to work in poorer communities.

  • Your headline suggests that getting a job means not doing good. There are other means and perhaps better means of “doing good” than joining the peace corps. My family is from a developing country, I question the value of sending over educated unskilled labor to developing countries. Who exactly is this program good for? If you’re trying to help the local population, why not hire local labor? Is it so far fetched to believe that there are locals who are educated and have skills to help their own communities? What skills to 22 year old political science majors bring to rural communities? Have they taught? Do they have backgrounds and training in education? Do they have prepared lessons plans? Do they know how to procure and install solar panels? Do they know how to start businesses and do accounting? If the program is trying to build good will towards America, send people with skills.

    Also, joining the peace corps may be a “sacrifice” for some but it’s a privilege for many and is simply not an option if people need to support families or pay non-deferrable loans/bills.

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    • Thanks for your comment! Being able to sacrifice other work experience to volunteer for 27-months is a certain privilege, but the headline is not meant to imply that those who get a paying job can’t also being doing good with that work. In the piece we mention that possibly because of the burden of student debt, more young people can’t make the sacrifice of service in the Peace Corps and must work instead.

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