The Peace Corps says that it has an annual drop-out rate of about 10 percent, based on how many volunteers drop out in a given year versus the total number of volunteers serving that year. The current number of volunteers represents an increase of under a thousand from past yearly totals, following a push by the Obama administration to expand the ranks.
Ludlam says the true drop-out rate is closer to a third, if one calculates it based on how many volunteers don't finish their full term of service. Each volunteer commits to three months of in-country training and 24 months of service, and some volunteers elect to extend their service.
Ludlam bases his claim on the research of returned Peace Corps volunteer Mike Sheppard, who served in the Gambia from 2003 to 2005 and then entered graduate school for statistics at Michigan State. Sheppard, now a full-time researcher at MIT, says that his analysis of Peace Corps documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows that a drop-out rate of 30 percent or just above appears to have been fairly consistent for the past 40 years.
Sheppard told ABC News that no matter which measure is used, the drop-out rate actually peaked in the late 60s, when the numbers of applicants and accepted volunteers hit record highs. By 1968, almost two-thirds of volunteers were leaving the Peace Corps before their commitment was up.
In a June 2010 report, after using the annual drop-out measure for many years in its public statements, the Peace Corps also included an "early termination rate," the same measure Sheppard uses. For volunteers who started their service in fiscal year 2007, the early termination rate was 30.6 percent.
Peace Corps Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet told ABC News that the Peace Corps responds to signs of trouble. "When we see that there's a country where there's lots of people leaving, we do an investigation," said Hessler-Radelet, "because we imagine that there's something going on there, absolutely."
Hessler said the annual rate varies from nine to 12 percent, and that the Peace Corps is striving to get it lower, but, "You know, it's never going to be zero. ... There are some people who get over there and find out it's not for them."
Whether volunteers stay or go, said Ludlam, he is concerned about what he calls a reluctance on the part of the Peace Corps to listen to volunteers and their critiques of what works and what does not in a given country. He also says that volunteers must feel free to speak their minds in confidence in order for the Peace Corps to improve.
"If the program is poorly managed, the Peace Corps will threaten to send you home if you cause trouble. If you don't give the volunteers confidentiality, many of the young volunteers will not speak out," said Ludlam.
He argued that volunteers should have full whistleblower rights, like those given to government employees, and that their whistleblower status must be mandated by law in order to protect them.
Ludlam gave the example of Kate Puzey of Atlanta, a volunteer in Benin, West Africa who sent an email to her country director in 2009 saying that she believed a Peace Corps employee in her village was sexually molesting female students.