Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘financial aid’

I’m curious…

September 7, 2008 · 1 Comment

What was Barack and Michelle Obama’s total student debt load when they graduated from Columbia/Princeton and Harvard Law School?  I haven’t been able to find anything credible on this via google search.

I ask because Obama’s stump speech often plays on the “I had massive student loans, and the opportunity to work on Wall Street, but I went to the South Side of Chicago instead.”  I would like to know more specifics about his financial situation to be able to relate to just what kind of sacrifice/opportunity cost that career decision amounted to. 

Michelle has said that the family didn’t pay off their student loans until Barack wrote his two books.  Since they graduated from HLS in 1988 year over year tuition inflation has averaged 5.94% (nearly twice CPI inflation at 2.99%).


Ok I little more google research and I found it (Big Ups to Lynn Sweet of the Sun Times for actually doing investigative journalism on this):

The Obamas complain about their college debt, but they did attend expensive schools. Obama took out $42,753 in loans to pay for Harvard tuition. Michelle signed notes for $40,762 in loans for her Harvard years.

Obama had a full scholarship for his freshman year at Occidental, taking out loans — the best I could get was “tens of thousands” to pay for the rest of his undergraduate school, with some help from his grandparents. At Princeton, as mentioned, Michelle had the work-study grant, got some help from her folks and took out “tens of thousands” of loans to pay tuition.

It sounds like Barack’s total debt load was around $75,000 and Michelle’s was probably a little less.  As a point of comparison, I’ll graduate with a two-year masters with a total of about $120,000 borrowed…a 1989 value of $66,441, assuming a 3% inflation rate.

There is no way in hell I could justify going to work as a “community organizer” come next year.  That’s a huge testament to Obama’s character, in my book.

Categories: graduate school
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An Innovative Approach to Financial Aid

July 17, 2008 · 2 Comments

As I await resolution to The Great Fellowship Debacle of Ought-Eight (current status: 1 call, 3 e-mails, zero response), I’ve found an interesting idea via Tyler Cowenmatching donors directly with students, thus cutting out the middle-man of the Financial Aid Office.

The organization that arranges the matching is called, and the guiding principle is that a direct matching process is more transparent, accountable and efficient than the current system schools have in place.

Their blog links to an article in the Princeton Weekly which discusses the distortionary pressures large endowment-subsidized tuitions can create in the competitive marketplace of higher education.  While Princeton might make be making education “universal” for its own students, the subsidy places tremendous upward price pressure on student tuitions across the board at other schools (especially Columbia).  As DiscoverScholar observes:

…historically elite learning institutions have much greater endowments and other financial resources at their fingertips.  These resources allow them to offer a better product and cheaper tuition to prospective students (which they will compensate for through interest on their endowments and subsequent alumni donations over coming years).  As a result, students accepted to a Princeton or Harvard face virtually no quality vs. price trade-off.

As I’ve written before, while SIPA has a $30 million endowment to support about 1200 students, the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton boasts a $558 million (endowment) for 200 students. As a result, not only is SIPA’s “percentage of revenue generated via tuition” double that of Princeton’s, but we have more inter-program competition for jobs and higher student-to-faculty ratios, including in the career services office.  (This does not even mention the fact that WWS offers tuition reimbursement for public sector committments, something SIPA could not even dream of doing).

As I’ve also written before, both here and for the Morningside Post, amassing student debt prohibits the student’s decision to enter the public sector.  The Review article mentions that a 2007 study co-authored by Princeton professors Cecilia Rouse and Jesse Rothstein found that even an extra $10,000 in debt greatly diminishes the odds that a graduate will take a public-service or other lower-paying job.

The sad part is that Columbia’s program for International Affairs is incongruently structured to allow students to pursue those jobs.  You have a situation where a bunch of former Peace Corps volunteers are looking to get more formal training in economic development or non-profit management, and they’re expected to pay $40,000 in tuition and fees per year out of pocket?  Seriously?  (Note:  I swear to God I will CACKLE into the phone if Columbia ever has the nerve to call me up for alumni donations).

Anyway, it would be nice to really compete competitively for financial aid based on a transparent matching process than to play the pray and hope and wait (based on misleading information) smokey-room system Columbia currently subscribes to.  (Still angry).

Categories: Opinion · graduate school
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Ask and Ye Shall Receive

July 10, 2008 · 1 Comment

So yesterday I asked some of lawerly friends to read over the Great Fellowship Debacle of Ought-Eight and provide counsel, both legal and otherwise.  Here are some things I learned:

1.)  Lawyers and Summer Associates are either really bored, really prompt, really nerdy, or some combination therein.  Of the 12 or so people I asked to take a look, over half responded within 4 hours.  So thanks guys.

2.)  As one friend put it:  “Let’s not get overly litigious just quite yet. I couldn’t get a read on whether you were just online ranting or if you were seriously curious whether you have a legal claim.” I actually was curious if I had a legal claim, but more so because of how little leverage I have otherwise.  If you’re one student in a school that hosts over 1300, your tuition’s contribution to the budget is marginal.  On the other side of the coin, being one year through a two year master’s leaves me little recourse other than to suck it up, foot the bill, and spend the rest of my life angrily shaking my fist at Columbia on the way to work as I pass it on the public bus from my tenement house in the Bronx.

3.)  The consensus (I think) was that I might have a case, but it was weak and probably not worth my time.  Even if the statement is a misrepresentation, I would have to prove that it was reasonably reliant (which might be doable, considering I’ve seen it used in other promotional materials, including the admittance package), and then I’d probably have to prove scienter, meaning that the statement was intentionally misleading.  Plus there are issues of damages; it’s hard to weight the opportunity cost of the forgone scholarship at GW against the intangible benefits Columbia could argue their degree provides.  All in all, again, not worth my time.

4)  The most consistent advice is that I try to work this out with the administration.  That I explain my situation and write and e-mail explaining my position.  There might even be an appeals process I can work through.  So I’ve called the Student Affairs Dean and written her the letter… we’ll see what comes of that.  It sounds like in the past the administration works to get you a “reader” position (as in reading papers and exams) which is small-commitment/small award fellowship for the first semester, and then get you a Program Assistant fellowship for the second semester (1/4 tuition or $9,000 for 20 hr./wk).

So anyway, there’s still hope, I guess.  Will let you know what comes of it.

Categories: graduate school
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In Need of Legal Advice

July 9, 2008 · 3 Comments

Here’s a teaser to all of my law-school friends out there:

I recently found out that I wasn’t selected for a fellowship from my graduate program.  Not only was this a huge bummer, but it was a tremendous source of confusion.

You see, I was operating under the information provided by SIPA’s Financial Aid web-page, which clearly states the following:

Approximately 70% of the second-year class receives a SIPA fellowship award, averaging $18,000 per award.

As I mentioned last week, “if I’m not in the top 70% of my class, I’ll eat my freaking hat.”  In fact, I know for a fact that my GPA (3.59) places me well above the 50th percentile, because SIPA’s Adjunct Teaching Manual states that “grades submitted for SIPA core courses or courses with enrollments over 30 should have an average GPA between 3.2 and 3.4, with the goal being 3.3.”

According to the Career Services Employment Statistics, 389 MIA students and 262 MPA students graduated in 2007, for a total of 651 students.  And according to the e-mail I received notifying me that I was not selected for a fellowship, 285 MIA and 68 MPA students applied for continuing student fellowships, for a total of 353 students.

Now, I’m no math major, but 70% of a class of 651 students is 455 students.  If “Approximately 70% of the second-year class received fellowship funding,” then everyone who applied should have been matched, with 100 fellowships left unfilled.  But I didn’t get one.


I called the Student Affairs office with the WTF? question and was told that “70% of eligible second-year students who apply” receive fellowships.”  That sounds like a “50% of the time, it works every time” type of statistic to me.

Moreover, considering the rationale for fellowship selection (in order of importance: 1. academic merit; 2. financial need; and 3. extracurricular activities), I still should’ve been in the top 70% of eligible candidates.  But I didn’t get a dime.  I didn’t even get fucking work study, which is like a $14 hour pittance.

Here’s the frustrating thing: I could’ve gone to George Washington University’s Elliot School on a 3/4 tuition; I could’ve gone to SAIS and competed for a second-year fellowship there.  I chose SIPA on good faith that I would compete for and receive a fellowship, and I made that decision based on the information available to me.

I feel that I have been mislead and intentionally deceived.  Given the false information, do I have legal grounds to sue for fraudulent inducement?

For a two years master’s program, “an average of $18K” is a pretty big fucking carrot to dangle to “70% of the class,” when in actuality only 38% of the class receive that money.

Categories: graduate school
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Makes me angry

July 2, 2008 · Leave a Comment

Jesus Cristo this has gotten expensive:

Master of International Affairs (MIA)

2008                           2009                Percentage Increase

Tuition and Fees:                  $38,449                                 $39,036                           1.53%

Room and Board:                   $13,950                                 $14,400                           3.22%

Books:                                   $ 1,500                                  $ 1,500                            0.00%

Personal Expenses/Travel:    $ 3,195                                  $ 5,080                           58.99%

Total Expected Costs:    $57,094                         $60,016                     5.12%

I’m obviously not too stoked on a 5.12% expected increase in cost of attendance at what was already one of the most expensive schools in the country.  The big jump in personal expenses comes from “travel,” which (all of a sudden) factors into the expense of, yannow, moving across the country for 9 months, visiting family for the holidays, then moving somewhere else for a 3 month internship.

Of course, I’ve been offered no work study and am still on the wait-list for fellowships.  SIPA advertises that “approximately 70% of the second-year class receives a SIPA fellowship award, averaging $18,000 per award.”  Well, I had a first-semester GPA of 3.59 (3 A-’s and a B+) while working 20 hours per week and thus far I’ve gotten nada.  Zilch.  Squat.  And if I’m not in the top 70% of my class, I’ll eat my freaking hat.

Like I said… not happy.

Categories: graduate school
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Financial Aid

June 15, 2008 · Leave a Comment

I’ve spent the entire weekend diligently searching for scholarships for the coming year.  As a straight, right-handed, White agnostic with no leadership or community service activities, I surprisingly qualify for very little when it comes to financial aid. 

As a result, I’ve resorted to scouting out short writing competitions.  I’m currently applying for the following:

Texas Goat and Sheep Raising Authority Congressional Letter Writing Contest

Applicant must write a letter on “Is Environmental Education Biased?” to the state senator and state representative from his or her district. Letter must be pro-American agriculture and pro-private property rights.

 Don’t judge me.

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What Do You Do, With a BA in English?

November 27, 2007 · 2 Comments

What do you do, with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge…
has earned me this useless degree…

So go the opening lines of “Avenue Q.” A musical that I found extremely relatable two years ago, when I moved to DC with a meager savings account, an over-valued skill-set, and a bohemian apartment on “U” Street.

I’ve heard it said before that “the BA is the new diploma.” The data backs this up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (my employer, by the way), the total enrollment of students attending two- and four-year degree granting institutions has more than doubled since 1970. During that time, female representation has increased drastically from 40% to 56%.

I’ve written before about the constraints on opportunity that arise as a direct result of inaffordable higher education. Here’s the scary trifecta:

1. Average annual tuition of 4-year private institutions has increased from $9228 in 1986 to $27,317 in 2006 (not adjusted for inflation).

2. The average total amount borrowed by students to finance a 4-year degree (as measured in 2001 constant dollars) increased from $12,100 in 1993 to $19,300 in 2000.

3. The median income for a male graduate (as measured in constant 2004 dollars) has only increased from $46,300 in 1980 to $48,400 in 2005. And incomes are on the decline since 2000. Note that the average income for a high-school grad in 1980 was $38,800.

So… I borrowed $16,000 to finance my undergraduate degree, and will likely require (worst case) a staggering $114,000 to finance my Masters. Which not only begs the question: why the hell did I get a liberal arts degree in History, but why does anyone pursue anything else?

Clearly I’m on the high end of the spectrum for tuition, debt burden, and (please God) should also be on the high-end for income earners. So my case is atypical. But there are students at Columbia who do not face the same financial considerations, because their educations are subsidized by financial aid and awards.

I’m not going to play the reverse-discrimination card here, especially since I turned down a hefty fellowship from the Elliot School at GW to attend SIPA, but as a disinterested observation, it does seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy for white men, who are last in line for financial aid purposes, to pursue careers that inevitably reinforce the over-representation of “old white men” who sit in boardrooms chalk full of white haired or bald guys who look identical to each other (even though most of those guys are legacies who probably never even had debt).

My point is, there is a substitution effect for dedication/effort/expectations for every less dollar of debt burden… the more indebted someone is, the more they will value their job, work for performance bonuses, take less days off, rise the ranks, etc. Debt is a strong motivational factor. Which is why I’m up writing crappy blog posts instead of preparing for my in-class debate tomorrow.

Categories: Uncategorized
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I’m a Finalist!

October 31, 2007 · Leave a Comment


I’m a finalist in the College Affordability Contest being organized by Campus Progress out of the Center for American Progress. My article, “The $57,000 Elephant in My Head,” (written for the Morningside Post) was selected in the top 16 out of over 400 entries. Fingers-crossed for the $2500 top prize!

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Morningside Post Article: Donor Disparity

October 10, 2007 · 1 Comment


Reader’s Note:  This article originally appeared in the Morningside Post.

Jonathan Host, MIA 2009

In a comparison of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton, and SIPA, the Columbia Spectator reports:

While SIPA has a $30 million endowment to support about 1200 students, the Woodrow Wilson School boasts a $558 million (endowment) for 200 students. This not only allows Princeton to be more flexible and swift in making changes, but makes opportunities possible that Columbia cannot offer its students.

This disparity is made even more explicit when visiting Columbia’s fund-raising campaign website. The endowment per student figures (included at the beginning of this post, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education for all degree granting programs, including the International Schools),is nearly four times greater at Princeton than it is at Columbia.

How does Columbia in general, and SIPA specifically, remain competitive?

Quite simply, it’s a matter of more students paying higher tuitions. Columbia’s revenue share from tuition is significantly higher than that of Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton.

The substantial burden of financing an education intended to lead to a career in policy or public service is very distressing. At this year’s orientation session on Financial Aid, when Assistant Director of Financial Aid Claudio Vargas was asked the typical length of time expected to fully pay off student loans after SIPA, he responded: “For some people it’s six months… for others, 60 years.” (I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but either way, I assure you… I did not laugh).

Princeton too, despite its impressive endowment, is not without its fair share of financial problems. Last month the Washington Post ran a front page article entitled “Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving.” The article detailed the ongoing lawsuit of Robertson v. Princeton, a case with enormous implications on the interpretation of the flexible use of “restricted” and “unrestricted” donations to educational institutions.

The Robertson endowment– originally a $35 million stock donation underwritten to to “establish . . . a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service”– today represents a fund that has grown to over $840 million.

Robertson claims that Princeton has “improperly spent more than $207 million (…) and that between 1990 and 2003, only about 10 percent of the graduates funded by the foundation went into international affairs jobs with the federal government.” (Interesting to note that Princeton told the Spectator that “85 percent of WWS graduates have taken employment in public service over the past three years,” although that statistic doesn’t describe “government service in isolation,” whatever that means).

The lesson learned from the Robertson case is that large, restricted donations– especially those earmarked for students– can handcuff the flexibility of a University’s administration.

On the bright side: I suppose you could assume that Columbia’s reliance on student tuition for revenue provides it with more flexibility, right? That a lower share of “restricted” alumni donations allows for greater administrative freedom?

If President Lee Bollinger’s recent opening address to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is any indication, I would speculate that’s not the case. As I’ve previously suggested, donors’ contributions (and more specifically, their threat of withholding future contributions) shaped the embarrassingly political nature of that speech.

Indeed, it seems to be the case in any budget that administrator’s are most attentive to the most volatile component. This is the case with stocks in mutual funds or taxes in national budgets. And it is clearly the case with alumni donations in University income statements.

Meanwhile, not only are students left without any recourse to protest (financially) the actions and decisions of their institutional leaders, but they must also bear the brunt of our predecessors’ capriciousness, or administration’s ineptitude. That is to say, to balance the books, more students are admitted at higher cost of attendance. And that in turn means greater competition for jobs, and rising indebtedness. Rising indebtedness means (even more) constraint in career choice.

And even if the constrained career choice directs alumni into careers and positions of higher lifetime earnings, I suspect that students’ long memories of Columbia’s stinginess will not translate well to future endowments.

But maybe I’m just bitter.

Jonathan Host is a first-year MIA studying Advanced Policy and Economic Analysis. He writes for fun on his blog .

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Looks Like I’ll Fit Right In!

August 31, 2007 · 5 Comments

Yesterday we had a reception for incoming students (beer provided! Hooray for private schools!) and I signed up to be a contributing writer for The Morningside Post. (More to come on that front as it develops.)

I didn’t get a chance to meet with the student group that puts on an end of the year production called Follies, but given its snarky irreverancy targeted toward points of authority (see my latest post on financial aid), the group seems right up my alley. From Ivygate:

This time the story is set at Columbia University’s School of International and
Public Affairs, an institution that we imagine buys red tape by the mile. These
are students training to be parts of bureaucratic machinery. Navigating the
school’s rigid hierarchy, financial aid office, and shoddy advising system –
that’s just part of your education! At the very least, a few students saw enough
similarity between their school and the existential mudpit of The Office to
write and shoot their own remarkably faithful remake. It’s got the same
characters as the NBC version, only everyone is Columbia-fied: Michael Scott
burns time surfing J Date. Dwight denies students financial aid. The deans award
fellowships by picking out the cutest applicants’ photos and throwing darts at
the finalists to determine the winner. It’s worth a gander, but you’ll have to
fill out a permission request first.

This is fantastic! Al, clearly your advice to “be myself, but not FULLY myself” was misguided.

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