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Hi all,

I’ve been lucky enough to be accepted to my top two programs, the Master of Public Administration at Cornell and the MPA- Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia. I am kind of torn as to what to do, as both programs have strengths that seem equally important for me, so I was hoping I could get some advice from a forum I have religiously stalked this entire process ? With the funding I have received, what I have saved, and living expenses factored in, Cornell is about 13k cheaper, but I would be alright paying a little more for the program from Columbia if that was a better opportunity. So while finances are important, they’re not a huge factor at this point in my decision.

I’m planning on entering the field of environmental policy/management (in the public or nonprofit sector), and because Columbia’s program actually includes some environmental science I thought this might be beneficial. However, Cornell’s program seems to be more well-rounded in all aspects you’d typically expect to find in an MPA/MPP program. Columbia’s program is also only a year long, which is great for the financial aspect of things but does condense the material into a much shorter span of time, and I worry will not be as in-depth. On the flip side of the coin, I think Columbia’s degree is (obviously) more geared toward the environmental side of things and could be a good opportunity to really specialize, and the degree seems very marketable as such. 

As far as location of the program, I am really not a huge NYC fan- I know, it might not have seemed like the smartest decision to apply to Columbia then, but the MPA-ESP program seemed absolutely worth it to me. The only other school with this option is Harris, and that seemed was way too expensive for me. I could be ok with NYC for a year, but honestly that’s it. I visited both campuses and found Cornell and the Ithaca area to be very comfortable and much more of my ideal grad school experience, however I don’t know how much weight this should hold on my decision.

Finally, although I feel like this is very superficial detail, I’m a little worried about the benefits each degree would hold to employers. By all means Columbia is traditionally a more prestigious school, but at this level is it important? Would it hold weight between these two schools? I went to a big commuter school that was somewhere from 200-300 in the rankings, and although I think I made up for it with work experience, I don’t know if this would be worthwhile grounds to choose a more prestigious school, even amongst Ivies. I really don’t think it is, but again I’m not an expert and wanted a second opinion.

I don’t have that long to make my final decision, so I would really appreciate any input you guys have on either of these schools or this decision. Thank you so much in advance!

Edited by lunarphase

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I'm a prospective applicant for both of these schools, but I'm not going for the environmental policy track at either institution so I'll try to break my advice down into several key questions that you should be asking yourself since based off of what you posted, both of these schools seem fairly evenly matched given the relatively small gap in cost of attendance. 

Employment prospects: I'm sure you've already looked into this yourself, but you should be asking yourself whether or not there's any noticeable difference in the employment outcomes as it pertains to environmental policy/management at these schools. If I recall correctly Columbia has quite the extensive archive of the employment prospects of all of their programs broken down by specialty/concentration that goes back several years. CIPA's info in that regard isn't nearly as extensive but they do mention some of the titles and positions that students in their program have gotten in the form of both full-time work and internships here (https://www.human.cornell.edu/cipa/academics/curriculum/concentrations/environmental). They also have a list of their internship and employment placements, but it's harder to tell which concentrations snagged which jobs from those two pages, so I would highly recommend calling their career services office, and seeing if they can give you more details as to where their environmental policy students both in terms of the job itself + the location. If they can't do that much, then see if they can refer you to any current students or graduates who took or are currently taking classes as part of the environmental policy track. You could do all of this with SIPA's career services as well, but honestly their employment information is so comprehensive that I don't think it's entirely necessary. 

Where do you want to work: If you want to/expect to end up in NY/DC then I don't think going to Cornell puts you at a major disadvantage since they have plenty of grads in both of those areas, even if Columbia has more grads in each area. If you're looking beyond those areas for employment however, then Columbia provides you with a more substantial advantage since it's safe to assume that their network is considerably deeper once you leave the NY/DC area. 

How confident (or not) are you in your work experience and skill set: You mentioned that Columbia's program is one year versus the two year program at CIPA. At the end of the day, whether or not it would be smart of you to go with the one year mpa depends on how confident you are in your prior work experience and current skill set, since I would imagine that a one year mpa would rely more on the students prior knowledge and experience. If you aren't feeling super great about your prior knowledge and experience then that's one substantial advantage that Cornell's two year program gives you in the form of an extra year to develop your overall skill set + an additional year to network and pick up work experience. If you're unsure about how or whether or not you can accurately evaluate your current expertise and work experience then this is where getting in touch with a grad from one or both of these programs is crucial since they'll be more likely to be completely honest with you in terms of evaluating your chances in a 1 year vs 2 year program. 

That's pretty much all I have to add in terms of key questions off the top of my head, but I'll certainly come back to this if I can think of something else. At least from my perspective, taking on an extra 13k to attend one schools is justifiable (although you'll get a wide variety of opinions on this from person to person). An extra 13k has considerably different meaning attached to it depending on how debt averse you are. Knowing the average salary of the fields you are interested in should help you answer how debt averse you should be in this case. So yeah I didn't really give you an answer or recommendation for either program, but it's tough for me to give one without knowing the answer to the questions that I gave above. Answering these questions for yourself however should help considerably in making the decision easier for you. Either way I would say that you have two good options on the table so you shouldn't lose too much sleep either way regardless of which decision you make. 

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