SIPA must establish need-based financial aid program

Damian Fagon | SIPA Class of 2017

As we get ready to enter our last semester at SIPA, it becomes more and more incumbent upon us to be open and honest about the institution that we’ll soon be calling our alma matter. In my time at SIPA, as a student as well as a student leader, it has become clear that there is one major difference between our program and our peer institutions: SIPA does not offer need-based financial assistance in any form to students.

This issue has been brought to the attention of students and administrators on multiple platforms. Several discussions surrounding financial need at SIPA Town Halls have revealed administrators do not have the capacity or resources to assess the financial need of students. Yet the following Columbia affiliated schools all manage to offer a mix of need, need-blind and merit-based financial assistance, to both international and domestic students, and are within walking distance:

  • Columbia Business School
  • Columbia Law School
  • The Fu Foundation School of Engineering
  • Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
  • Columbia Mailman School of Public Health
  • College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Columbia University School of Nursing
  • Union Theological Seminary
  • Jewish Theological Seminary
  • Columbia Journalism School
  • Columbia School of Social Work
  • Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
  • Columbia University School of the Arts
  • Barnard and Columbia Undergrad (all financial aid is need-based)

Of our direct competitors, the following offer both need and merit-based financial assistance:

  • Tufts Fletcher School
  • Harvard Kennedy School
  • John Hopkins SAIS
  • Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School

These schools all recognize the importance of assessing both merit and need in the administration of financial assistance because 1) I imagine that they believe it is the ethical thing to do, 2) students benefit academically and socially from a diverse student body, and 3) it’s a necessary component for any academic/professional program that aspires to be top-ranked within its field.

Make no mistake; need-based financial assistance is even more essential for programs such as ours. SIPA students can be – and are – admitted and awarded fellowships on the basis of a number of structurally exclusionary activities (living overseas, studying abroad and unpaid internships). Here in the US, these sector specific barriers are high and vast. As many of us are well aware, it’s next to impossible to get a start in policy or international development in DC or NYC without having taken an unpaid internship at some point. As a result, the IR/public policy sectors often recruit and attract candidates wealthy enough to afford to live without income in an expensive city, in pursuit of the work experience necessary to be considered for admission at schools like SIPA and MSFS. In short, candidates from modest backgrounds are kept out. For many of the resilient few who do succeed, they are often tokenized and made into examples of how anyone can make it, thereby concealing and further perpetuating the inequality.

I say all of this fully aware of the multitude of ways in which my own privileged background has brought me here. The burden of my debt versus the burden of debt for a student of low means is not the same. Many of you are aware of this imbalance as well. Still, attending SIPA is a choice and occupying these spaces is a privilege unto itself. Nevertheless, in acknowledgement of this privilege, I believe strongly that we have a responsibility to ensure that structural exclusion and indirect discrimination at this school do not go unchallenged.

In summary, this issue cuts to the core of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity for both domestic and international students at SIPA. It’s not difficult to see the direction in which our school is headed and the demands that it increasingly caters to, most visible in rising tuition costs and the shift in concentration sizes. And that’s fine. I’m absolutely no expert in managing a graduate program nor do I have complete information on the schools current resources or long-term funding priorities. It isn’t my intention to criticize SIPA administrators, or imply that currently funded students did not deserve their aid packages, but rather to highlight the role we as students, and as alumni in 6 months, should have in making this school a more inclusive and impactful space going forward.

Much to their credit, SIPA administrators have reached out to address this issue in greater detail. I believe many of them recognize this is a huge blind spot with a fairly straightforward solution. If you are interested in taking part in this discussion or want to share your thoughts, concerns, objections, please contact me at my Columbia uni (df2588).



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