The 'Best And The Brightest' Join The Peace Corps–High Risk/High Gain

In the very first years of the Peace Corps we all became familiar with a strange new nomenclature that dominated  Training Programs and was used by Alan Weiss (Nigeria 1962-63) as the title of his  humorous book about the Peace Corps published in 1968 by St. Martin’s Press, High Risk/High Gain. This new nomenclature was crafted by Peace Corps psychologists to grade Trainees while they were still in Training Programs at U.S. colleges and universities. The Peace Corps  Selection Division had  ‘agreed’ to measure potential PCVs with this classification. Besides High Risk/High Gain, a Trainee could also be High Risk/Low Gain; Low Risk/Low Gain, or considered by the Shrinks as an outstanding candidate for new-highsuccess in the Peace Corps as  High Gain/Low Risk.

Based on these evaluations, Trainees were Selected-In or Selected-Out of the Peace Corps. More than a few of us lost good friends in those first days of the Peace Corps based on the High Risk/High Gain grading system.

But how did High Risk/High Gain come to be in the first place at the agency?

It was agreed by Shriver and his immediate Staff in early 1961 that the Peace Corps would stand or fail on the Volunteers selected. Without properly motivated, well-adjusted, and talented candidates, the entire Peace Corps operation would be doomed to early failure. The Peace Corps in March 1961 was highly visible. Already a considerable body of public opinion was convinced that the Peace Corps would not work. Sarge and others were well aware of the “failures” of other Americans overseas, a fact that the novel The Ugly American had pointed out.

So, how could the Peace Corps get great PCVs?

A process to get the “best and the brightest’ began on March 22, 1961, with the appointment of Dr. Nicholas Hobbs as Director of Selection. Hobbs was at the George Peabody College for Teachers, but it was decided he was well qualified for the job of picking PCVs. During WWII Hobbs helped to establish the Air Force selection process. He had also been Chairman of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association. More importantly, he believed in the idea of the Peace Corps and was willing to commit his professional reputation to its fulfillment. He turned immediately to other professionals to help set up a system to select Volunteers.

On Tuesday, March 28, 1961, Hobbs held a conference of advisers. 22 people were send telegrams inviting them to attend. 21 said yes. The lone person to say no was overseas.  Attending this conference were representatives from the International Cooperation Administration, several voluntary agencies, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Institutes of Health, and USIA.

This group established general guidelines for the first Peace Corps Entrance Test, and by April psychologists had framed the specifications. Then the project was given to the Educational Testing Service at Princeton and they developed a test along these guidelines. Within weeks a model for the Peace Corps Entrance Test was ready. Speed was important as Ghana had already asked for secondary school teachers. It was a request that had not been anticipated at the time of the initial planning for the tests. The Peace Corps couldn’t miss the chance to fulfill its first request.

Meanwhile, the American Institute for Research developed a biographical data blank and a personal inventory to assess personality variables not touched upon by the other tests.

The  United States Civil Service Commission was called into helping  the Peace Corps and employees of the Post Office undertook administration of the tests at 500 centers throughout the country. For anyone applying from overseas, that was handled by U.S. Embassies.

Finally every person who had volunteered for the Peace Corps as of midnight, Thursday, May 25, 1961, was notified to appear at a specified examination on the following Saturday morning, May 27, the date of the first test. A second test for teachers followed on June 5, 1961. A total of 5,210 tests were given on those two days. A total of 11,269  would take the tests in 1961 on four separate dates.

Okay, the ‘Best and the Brightest’ took the tests…now what?

End of Part One

3 Comments

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  • Thanks, John. This is a topic (early PC recruitment guidelines) that interests me, for something I am writing in my next book. Apparently Alan Weiss’s book, ‘High Risk/High Gain’ is either popular or rare, or both. I searched the used book sites on the Internet, and found only 2 copies – one for over $50 and the other for just under $100. So, hang on to your copy; the value can only go up. Meanwhile, I await installment #2 to your ‘babble’. Thanks! -Don Messerschmidt, Nepal-2 (1963-65).

  • John,
    I remember the selection process somewhat differently. After my volunteer service (1963-5) I sat on a number of selection boards as a desk officer and country director. As I remember it, we ranked those trainees who were selected to go overseas into six categories: top quartile (those most likely to excel), second quartile, third quartile, fourth quartile (least likely to excel, but would do an adequate job and were still worth sending overseas), special placement (i.e. could go overseas, but could only serve in certain locations or assignments because of extenuating circumstances such as health) and, finally, “high risk/high gain.” This last category was a special wildcard-type category for volunteers who were considered risky, but who might nevertheless make major contributions and were therefore worth taking a chance on. I don’t remember our using other terms like “high risk/low gain.” At the end of two years of service, country directors were expected to evaluate volunteers into the same four quartiles and the selection officials in Peace Corps/Washington would then compare the results in order to fine-tune the process. Both from my own experience as a country director and from what I remember hearing from Washington, there was relatively little correlation, which no doubt contributed to the decision to drop the system around 1970 and move towards a greater emphasis on self selection.
    Sam

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