“I also have an even more sinister goal, which is I want to stop hiring just people from New York and Boston and Washington, D.C., want to take the message that being an American diplomat is a truly proud profession and that we need a really diverse workforce and that includes people from the heartland, people who grew up with the values that I know so well from my time in Kansas.”

— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with USA Today, March 3, 2019

StateDept represents America to the world, so our team should reflect the millions of Americans outside the Boston-DC corridor.”

— Pompeo, in a tweet, March 4

The State Department in recent years has striven to diversify the ranks of its Foreign Service, recruiting beyond the stereotype of a white, male Ivy Leaguer. In the 2016 State Department authorization bill, Congress insisted on regular reports with statistics on the recruitment and promotion of underrepresented minority groups and service-disabled veterans.

But now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun to argue for another metric of diversity — geographic representation from across the country, or as he put it, “from the heartland.” That may be a laudable goal — one that sounds good to his boss’s ears — but he’s basing his concern on some misleading statistics.

The Facts

When we initially asked the State Department for data on what Pompeo was talking about, we received a statement concerning the 2017 class of Foreign Service officers: “According to self-reported data from the classes of new Foreign Service Officers in FY 17, about 53 per cent attended university in just six states and D.C.: California, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. We recognize this is only one element of diversity.”

Hmmm. Where a person attends a university is not really a good indication of whether they grew up in the heartland. Pompeo himself was born in Orange, Calif., graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and got a law degree from Harvard. The Fact Checker grew up in Ohio and Kentucky, graduated from Brown University and received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

So, by Pompeo’s math, both of us would be from the “Boston-DC corridor,” even though neither of us grew up in the Northeast.

When we dug into the numbers, it became even more absurd. Of the 218 members of the 2017 foreign-service class who attended college — two did not — 48 are listed as having attended university in D.C., a State Department official said. That’s 22 percent of the total. The number is way out of proportion to the percentage of American students who attend college in the District — less than one half of one percent.

But there are four major centers for studying international relations located in D.C.: The School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the School of International Service at American University and the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Logically, people who are interested in pursuing a career at the State Department might first want to get a specialized degree. It doesn’t have to be an international affairs degree; people also enter the Foreign Service with law degrees.

When you exclude D.C., from the numbers, the six states that the State Department highlighted make up only a slightly larger percentage of the foreign-service class than they do for U.S. college students overall: 31 percent vs. 26 percent.

The two biggest states, New York, with 22 of the incoming foreign-service officers and Massachusetts, with 17 — also happen to be states with major programs in international relations — Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University — not to mention top-flight public policy programs at Syracuse University and Harvard University.

A better gauge of geographic diversity would be tracking where foreign-service officers attended high school, but the State Department apparently does not keep that data.

The international-relations programs attract a geographically diverse group of students, but it’s also hard to track where they grew up, because many work for a few years before entering a graduate program. For instance, the 272 U.S. citizens who entered SAIS’s program in 2017 came from 33 states, according to university figures, but 127 listed the District, Virginia or Maryland as their permanent residence. That suggests many began studying at the program after landing a job already located in the Washington, D.C., area.

Similarly, Georgetown said that about 31 percent of attendees at the School of Foreign Service programs in Summer 2016, Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 listed the District, Virginia and Maryland as their address.

American University provided data for freshman undergraduates in the fall of 2018 at the School for International Service. The 495 students hailed from 44 states, the District and Puerto Rico, with the largest number, about 13 percent, coming from California, the nation’s biggest state. But there were also almost as many students from “heartland” states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin

We also checked the states listed by 113 ambassadors currently drawn from the Foreign Service. But this is a self-selected measure and the biggest number, 25, or 22 percent, listed Virginia as their state of residence.

Virginia is popular, because it allows a diplomat to pay in-state tuition to Virginia’s top-ranked colleges. Florida and Texas are also favorites for diplomats because they are no-tax states. In contrast to the list of universities, only one ambassador — Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the head of mission in Timor-Leste — listed the District as her residence. (She was born in Maryland, graduated from the University of Dayton and earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University before working at State.)

Despite the lack of hard data, State Department officials privately say that the department is already geographically diverse. Anecdotally Mormons appear more numerous than the 1.6 percent of the U.S. population that practices the religion, largely because of the Mormon tradition of learning foreign languages and serving as missionaries overseas. (They also sail through their security clearances.) Mormons are generally clustered in Western states well outside the Boston-Washington corridor, such as Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Arizona.

Meanwhile, State Department figures show that the department still falls short on more common metrics of diversity. As of the end of 2018, among the roughly 8,000 Foreign Service generalists, 81 percent are white, with 5.4 percent African American, nearly 6 percent Asian and nearly 6 percent multi-race. In terms of gender, almost 60 percent are male.

The Pinocchio Test

Pompeo said he wanted “to stop hiring just people from New York and Boston and Washington, D.C.” and the Department should "reflect the millions of Americans outside the Boston-DC corridor.” But his complaint appears to be based on lousy data. There is no evidence that the State Department fails to have geographic diversity in its ranks; just because someone attended a university in the District of Columbia does not mean they did not grow up in Kansas or Ohio.

Pompeo earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Three Pinocchios
“State Dept represents America to the world, so our team should reflect the millions of Americans outside the Boston-DC corridor.”
in a tweet
Monday, March 4, 2019