Open Letter on Need-Based Aid from Current SIPA

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Open Letter | April 5, 2017

Over the last five months, an informal group of SIPA students have engaged in collaborative and productive dialogue with school administrators around the current status of financial aid. Our goal at the outset of these discussions was, and continues to be, the establishment of need-based financial aid packages at SIPA (to be implemented alongside the current merit-based aid system). After months of meetings, surveys, research, outreach, and strategizing we have found the following to be true:

  • Within Columbia University’s twenty schools, SIPA is one of only two that offer no need-based considerations in the administration of financial aid.
  • SIPA tuition and the associated levels of debt have risen to levels that makes non-profit and public sector work less feasible post-graduation. Over half of 300 student respondents to the “Financing a SIPA Education” survey expect to take out loans exceeding a total of $60,000, but less than half of the respondents expect to make more than $60,000/year after graduation.
  • Students taking on a significant amount of debt and working part-time or full-time to try and offset that debt are put at a disadvantage when competing with classmates for TA/DRA/PA positions.
  • SIPA students are awarded financial aid on the basis of a number of structurally exclusionary activities (living overseas, studying abroad and unpaid internships).
  • SIPA’s classrooms are heavily represented by students from upper-middle class backgrounds, and there is a notable absence of socioeconomically diverse viewpoints.
  • The basis for SIPA’s fully merit based system is flawed because it makes the awarding of aid to less-advantaged students contingent upon benefits that are available to the rest.

Thankfully – SIPA has moved to respond to these critical issues. At SIPA’s Town Hall on Wednesday, April 5, administrators will announce a financial aid pilot program that incorporates a need-analysis component to the scholarship selection process for students entering in the Fall semester of 2018. The broad details of the pilot are as follows:

  • SIPA will assess the financial need of both domestic and international students.
  • SIPA will consider whether domestic students have received Pell Grants and/or have high student loan debt as part of the assessment of need.
  • SIPA will prioritize assistance to international students from developing countries and those regions and groups which are traditionally not well represented in the student body.
  • SIPA will analyze the impact of this pilot program and make necessary modifications as appropriate.

We are grateful for the administration’s openness and receptiveness to our concerns and willingness to work with us to implement need-based financial aid at SIPA. We look forward to continuing to work with the administration over the course of the next several months on the pilot program’s design, size, and scope. Having said that, we have made clear that the following factors are necessary conditions for any successful pilot:

  • The pilot must distribute financial assistance to admitted students purely on the basis of need, and entirely independent of any merit-based considerations. If a student receives admission to SIPA, they have already established merit and should therefore qualify for need-based aid considerations.
  • The distribution of need-based aid is distributed equally between domestic and international students.
  • Student representatives are continuously engaged in the design, implementation, and results of the pilot program.

Our group remains committed to the development and implementation of policies that calibrate financial aid according to a student’s opportunities. We encourage all SIPA students to attend the Town Hall this Wednesday and to share your thoughts on this very important issue with school officials and your fellow students.


Alejandra Baez, Class of 2018, Gretchen Baldwin, Class of 2018, Divya Chandran, Class of 2017, Damian Fagon, Class of 2017, Thomas Guerra, Class of 2017, Adriana Tache, Class of 2017, Mena Tajrishi, Class of 2017, Rahel Tekola, Class of 2018, Tabatha Thompson, Class of 2017, and Alexandra Maria Wilcox, Class of 2017