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The Economics of Policy Schools and Fundraising

A few months ago a letter was sent to my permanent address in Dallas. I’ve been thinking – intermittently – about its contents for a couple of months. The letter came from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Among other things, it reminded me that attending a top policy school is not necessarily compatible with pursuing a career in the public or non-profit sectors – something that many SIPA alums do. The letter, dated on December 6, was from a MPA (class of 2014) candidate. Having spent his “childhood in and out of over 30 foster homes in Washington State,” this is a man with a story to tell. After graduation he will return to DC (where he worked for several years) and “work on child advocacy and make significant, lasting improvements to the foster care system.” It also included the following (in bold) sentence in the last paragraph, “If you, too, are committed to improving our world through the education and public policy skills you gained at SIPA, I urge you to help others with the same passion by making a gift to the SIPA Fund today.”

This is mostly about money. SIPA gets a bad rap for two reasons: its seemingly limitless bureaucracy and the prohibitive cost of a master’s degree. Let’s focus on cost. SIPA’s not cheap but almost none of the prestigious policy schools are – Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School is the only exception. (Complaints about bureaucratic excesses likely have more merit. SIPA is a large school that is admitting too many people with class sizes that are too big with an administrative staff that (while quite capable) is probably too small).

I have no doubt that letters of this nature have been sent to me since I left SIPA nearly two years ago. I’m sure that other schools, including SIPA’s peer institutions, do the same. Whether it’s highly effective or not, SIPA’s aggressive fundraising strategy has much to do with its small endowment, especially compared to similar policy schools at places like Princeton and Harvard.

Importantly, the fact that peer institutions have more money also means that they can give more aid to students. In addition, a lack of money has also contributed to SIPA admitting and enrolling a lot of students. I graduated with well over 700 other people. Yes, that figure includes people who didn’t participate in the school’s two largest degree programs, but – regardless – SIPA is still a massive operation.

Even though many of my classmates did get second-year fellowships, most people left with a lot of debt, including this writer. SIPA’s official website does give a realistic assessment of the situation. “Today, the average student in financial need graduates with $60,000 of debt. Although approximately 70% of SIPA students who apply for aid receive it, the average award is approximately $16,000, which only partially covers the full cost of a SIPA education. This means that many deserving students cannot attend SIPA at all, while many who do, postpone careers in the public and not-for-profit sectors while they pay off their loans.”

With my closer SIPA friends, the cost of the program was something that was not infrequently discussed. I’ve even met SIPA people who have graduated over ten years ago and have told me that they’re still paying off their loans…yikes!

I have been wondering whether sending a letter to someone like me is SIPA’s best use of time or money. I have been wondering how many recent graduates are donating money to the institution and whether it’s a good idea to be sending fundraising requests to any of them right now. One suggestion might be for SIPA to wait 3-5 years before sending out fundraising letters to recent graduates. Yet, for some people who enroll at SIPA, money is not (and never will be) an issue. Nonetheless, the school’s current fundraising plan may not be the most skillful approach. Even though it doesn’t make tons of economic sense for people who will pursue careers in the public and non-profit sectors to attend a school like SIPA, I guess the unfortunate reality is that sending out fundraising letters to recent graduates probably does make economic sense. The benefits associated with the process likely exceed the costs. I frankly don’t know for sure, but I would hope the school has already run its own cost-benefit analysis about this.

I was impressed by the caliber of my classmates at SIPA. I thought most of the professors were brilliant, dedicated and quite accessible. Some of them continue to be sources of advice and wisdom. I’ve noticed that the SIPA network is alive and well. I’ve had an opportunity to exchange ideas, e-mails or have coffee with a diverse group of fascinating and accomplished people. There’s no bitterness here, although reflections like these do raise interesting counterfactuals.

I don’t know if it matters where I went to grad school. I’d guess that – in most cases – it probably does, but it’s tough to know how much. I’ll never know if SIPA was the best choice for me. What I do know is that there’s a lot about SIPA I liked, but that it mostly comes down to the people – men and women who are not trying to solve theoretical problems or analyze issues in a vacuum. SIPA’s halls are flooded with ambitious people who want to shape events, as opposed to being shaped by them; I just loved that part of it. Besides, I got to spend two years of my twenties in New York City – an educational experience which, if recounted properly, would make for a much more interesting (and longer) piece of writing.