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Hello to the Grad Cafe community! I have been reading through lots of posts here over the past few weeks and decided to write one of my own to get some advice on a slight dilemma I am facing.

To provide some background, I have been out of undergrad for about two years serving at a Federal financial regulatory agency. I am committed to the work I do and am hoping to gain some additional experience needed to move into the policymaking aspect of the area I am in, so I applied to several master's programs in public policy for the upcoming semester. After receiving all my decisions, it turns out that my choice of where to pursue my degree may be a bit more challenging than I had anticipated. I do apologize for asking a question on which similar posts have been made in the past, but I was hoping to get some more current feedback from the community for my specific circumstances.
In summary, I was lucky enough to be accepted two weeks ago with full-tuition funding to the MPA program at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), which had been my top choice from the start. Another offer I had in the running was the MAIR program at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) for approximately half-tuition funding, but I felt the cost difference was great enough to make SPIA the clear winner. Last week, however, I was utterly shocked to be accepted with full-tuition funding to the MPP program at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Though I had been set on SPIA at that point, I felt I could not simply ignore this new offer. So, that puts me in the fortunate position to be deciding between SPIA and HKS. After weighing the pros and cons of each program, I believe I have boiled down the differences between the two options to the following:
Cost - SPIA is offering me full tuition (as they do all students), plus a generous $30k/year living stipend, while Harvard has offered me "only" full tuition with no stipend, which leaves me to cover living costs. While I have been saving aggressively and would likely be able to cover these expenses without taking on debt, a $60k difference over two years remains substantial. Moreover, the cost of living in Princeton is certainly lower than in Cambridge, and SPIA offers additional benefits like guaranteed graduate housing, funding for unpaid internships, and reimbursement for travel to career events, so the total difference would likely be greater.
Size - SPIA is a much smaller program than HKS (~70 students for the MPA vs. ~200 for the MPP). On the one hand, this makes SPIA a more intimate learning environment where I will get to know my cohort very well and have many opportunities for interaction with professors and speakers. On the other hand, it means that there are possibly fewer opportunities and choices than at HKS, where there are likely more classes to choose from, more clubs, and more events. The SPIA alumni network is also substantially smaller when considering future networking opportunities, but I did speak to a recent SPIA alumni who said the network is very strong and was able to land him his post-graduation job.
Focus - SPIA is a small, focused program geared heavily toward public service and policy. HKS, though also committed to service and the "public good," appears to be broader in scope and caters to a wider range of interests. For example, when looking at recent job placements, HKS graduates ended up in a broader variety of jobs, including many in the private sector. Neither of these are necessarily good or bad, and in fact students in both programs appear to place very well after graduation, but it is something to bear in mind. I am fairly certain I want to end up in a policy-related public sector role after graduation, or I would not have applied to SPIA, but I am also aware of the oft-repeated cliché of going into grad school with one goal and leaving with another. HKS would simply provide me more degrees of freedom if that ends up being the case for me.
So, that leaves me to decide whether the size and focus considerations discussed above weigh in HKS's favor or not. If not, then SPIA is the winner. But if they do, then the next question is whether they weigh in its favor by at least $60k+. If not, then SPIA again. Another consideration is that while SPIA is arguably one of the top public affairs schools in the world, I am aware that the Harvard "brand" can be a powerful asset (not to say HKS is not also a top school!). But, I do not believe that brand should be worth $60k by itself, especially in the public policy space, where I would assume that most employers would be equally familiar with SPIA, and where SPIA alumni are abundant.
I feel extremely grateful to be presented with such amazing opportunities, and I realize how lucky I am to be facing this "problem." Regardless, I hope some of you may be able to offer some words of wisdom that may help me as I make this decision. Thank you, and good luck to you all in your own graduate school endeavors!
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Honestly, as an outside observer, it sounds to me like you've already made up your mind in favor of SPIA! Which, for what it's worth, does sound to me like the right move. I also was fortunate enough to get accepted to HKS with full funding, though I got rejected from SPIA; if I'd gotten in, however, I would have gone there over HKS. The brand names of the two schools are basically equally strong in the public policy space, and the curricula are pretty similar as well (unless you're interested in something pretty niche and/or would want to take non-HKS classes while you're at Harvard, which don't sound like the case for you). So, even if you do decide you want to enter the private sector down the line, the skills that you'd gain at SPIA would likely set you up the same as HKS. So all in all, the difference in funding seems to me to be significant enough, and the differences in programs negligible enough, that SPIA seems to me to be the way to go.

And huge congratulations on getting to make this choice!

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I also second @Think Tanker's observation that you seem very much to be leaning towards SPIA. I had to make this exact decision and here are some of the questions I asked myself. Some may not be as relevant for you, but hope it helps.

  • Are the opportunities available at HKS you're eyeing that are completely unavailable at SPIA? If there is an elective, knowledge set, etc. you like at HKS, could you find something similar at SPIA?
  • Realistically, how many of HKS's events would you attend? How many clubs would you join?
  • How much does the Harvard name matter to you (especially given that the other name is Princeton?)
  • What community do you want during grad school? What type of alumni community do you want upon graduation?
  • How much does career services and a personalized experience in professional development matter to you?
  • What type of academic experience do you want?
  • What type of challenge do you want during graduate school?
Edited by kerby
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  • 2 weeks later...

I have to make a somewhat similar decision between the MPP at HKS and the MPA at Columbia University, so thought I'd comment on this thread as well! Have you decided yet? Please let us know what was your final decision, but indeed, I tend to agree that the larger the funding package, the better, especially considering that Princeton is an amazing school.

If anyone can provide some support, my situation is that I got a partial fellowship at HKS, and a full tuition fellowship at Columbia. As an international student, taking out loans is quite tricky, so I'm leaning towards choosing Columbia... However, HKS is still my first choice, so I'm wondering if anyone has any insight about this scenario. Is HKS really that much better than Columbia, and would sacrificing a full tuition fellowship be worth it?

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