A Shot at the Game

By: Anca Agachi

When “Hoosiers” came out in 1986, it was an immediate hit. It’s hard not to like it. Hoosiers is the quintessential feel-good movie: a small basketball team from a minuscule town in Indiana ends up winning the state championship, against towering odds. As Jimmy Chitwood, the team’s star player makes his final shot with less than a second left on the clock and the audience awaits breathlessly, the movie also reveals its main argument: those who work hard make it, no matter the challenges.

It’s the quintessential American Dream, but it’s an incomplete take. Because, at times, hard work is not enough, and more often than not, potential doesn’t compensate for a lack of support systems. That is why we need to discuss how to ensure equitable access to opportunity. We need to talk about need-based financial aid.

Why need-based financial aid

Need-based aid is awarded to students on the basis of clearly determined financial need (calculated using indicators such as personal income, family income or assets owned). It can come in many forms, ranging from subsidized loans to scholarships, which do not need to be repaid. Fundamentally, however, it is meant to rectify inequality of opportunity, and not of outcome.

This difference reflects one fundamental misunderstanding about need-based aid. Take Carlos, for example, whose story Malcolm Gladwell shares in his podcast, Revisionist History. Carlos speaks articulately, like a man wise beyond his years. His voice modulates warmly when he speaks about math. Carlos is brilliant - yet he comes from a poor family in a rough neighborhood in South Los Angeles. What differentiates his journey from that of countless other talented, but financially struggling students who never make it? He benefits from a one-of-a-kind academic scholarship, a crucial support system, which allows him to attend an elite private school and craft a different destiny for himself.

Carlos has been working and will continue working just as hard as his peers - need-based aid doesn’t give a leg up to those who don’t deserve it. However, need-based aid will equalize the playing field for Carlos and others like him who lack the opportunities, privilege and resources their peers have.

So why care about Carlos? First, because you might be a Carlos at SIPA. Second, you might know a Carlos at SIPA. But most importantly, because Carlos receiving a need-based aid scholarship might help you in the long-term.

The case for need-based financial aid is one of the rare ones which is both strategically sound and morally right. Need-based aid is a matter of social and economic justice. The equity part is easy to grasp: by supporting those students whose income levels would normally preclude them from attending an Ivy League university, SIPA is expanding the empowering value of education and bridging social divides. At the same time, students benefit academically and socially from a diverse student body. A professional school like SIPA, where so much of the educational value comes from peer-to-peer learning, could be fundamentally improved by a more inclusive, equitable pool of admitted students.

Implementing need-based aid is also the strategically smart thing to do. SIPA’s direct competitors such as Johns Hopkins, Tufts Fletcher or Harvard, not to mention other Columbia schools, have all implemented need-based aid tracks (some of them meeting full demonstrated need for both US and international students). SIPA’s (lack of) financial offerings disincentivizes some of the best and brightest students across the world from studying here, and disproportionately affects people of color in North America and international students from developing countries. This, in turn, can translate into lower donation levels once graduates join the alumni ranks and an overall decrease in the competitiveness of the school.

Finally, need-based aid impacts us all because financial security is inextricably linked with need-based aid. The amount of debt students incur has significant downstream consequences, and most significantly, it can impact future career choices. In a survey conducted by the 2017 Class, almost 60% of respondents said that their expected levels of debt have influenced the job field they are pursuing. For every Seeple dreaming of mitigating human rights abuses or improving development practices, a heavy financial burden restricts choices, and therefore the freedom to optimize one’s potential and interest. Need-based aid can open doors and make for more sustainable ways to leverage a SIPA degree.

Need-based aid at SIPA

So what about SIPA?

For the last three years, an informal group of students has been advocating for establishing a separate need-based financial aid track, meant to complement SIPA’s existing merit-based one. While the institutional memory remains, every year the baton has been passed from one graduating class to the next, and now, it’s the 2020 Class’ turn. To their credit, the Admissions Office, Financial Aid Office and OSA have maintained an open door and have shown interest in developing this process, which is a welcome step. However, much more needs to be done

So far, the 2017 taskforce has carried out research on the need and feasibility of such an effort, while the 2018 and 2019 ones have been having conversations with the administration about achieving this goal. In parallel, groups such as the Diversity Coalition have been also considering financial need as it relates to issues of diversity, inclusion and racial justice. Before we leave, our goal for 2019 is to figure out ways to institutionalize this effort, develop funding stream ideas and improve transparency as it relates to communicating changes and financial aid numbers.

The class of 2020, you, are directly impacted by this. Your class was the first which benefited from a pilot program, which assessed “holistically” for the first time need and merit. While a welcome addition, the indicators, final scholarship sums and decision framework should be public, especially since the admission of the 2021 Class was built upon this effort. Most importantly, conflating need and merit defeats the purpose of need-based aid, since it still biases the program in favor of those who have already benefited from more resources and opportunities. Assuming Carlos applied to SIPA, a mixed merit and need framework would not account for the significantly higher efforts he made to be as competitive as his peers, and would disproportionately reduce the financial award he deserves. All admitted SIPA students, with their different expertise and experiences, equally deserve to be here, regardless of their financial need.

What can You do?

There are many ways in which you can help take this initiative further. Here are some ideas.

Join the cause.

The most important thing you can do is to take up the torch of need-based financial aid. We need first-years to help this initiative live and continue the important policy work done by so many other Seeples. If you are interested or want to find out more, contact me at sipaneedbasedaid@gmail.com. I’d be happy to answer any questions.

Be an ally.

There is immense power in numbers. If this article has convinced you, write to the administration about this issue, talk to your peers and help establish the critical mass we need to implement this change. Joining other groups such as SSOC or the Diversity Coalition is also an incredibly meaningful choice. If I haven’t convinced you, please inform yourself about need-based aid - there are some great resources to start with at the bottom of this page.

Support SIPA.

Helping SIPA be more equitable, fair and open is also helping the cause of need-based aid. Unfortunately, there are many other policies which need improvement, for instance increasing transparency in financial aid numbers releases, improving the diversity of the core curriculum or better communicating assistantship policies, especially as they relate to the Graduate Union efforts. Helping develop them is a meaningful way to grow as a future policy-maker.

We need movies like Hoosiers to remind us about the value of hard work and believing in one’s chance. But we need to go beyond that and recognize the importance of institutional systems which enable opportunity, and support them accordingly.

We came to SIPA to become policy practitioners. Every day, we learn how to shape the game of policy, devise a fairer system for selecting the competing stakeholders and ensure the winner represents a win for the world. We have the responsibility and opportunity to start doing that for our educational institution first, so that SIPA truly becomes the place “where the world connects”.


  • Open letter from past NBA groups

  • A collection of essays by Adriana Tache about students making great financial sacrifices in the pursuit of SIPA Degrees

  • A pertinent argument for need-based aid

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast which covers in 3 episodes financial aid, as well as the hard trade-offs that come with it for both universities and students (Season 1, Episodes 4-6)

  • An argument in favor of talking about class and privilege

  • A funnier take on student loans (it’s possible!)