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Eleventh hour advice on GSPP versus Duke! (MPP)


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Hi all,

I'm crossing my fingers that someone will see my last-minute plea for advice here......

I'm trying to decide between the MPP programs at Berkeley's Goldman School and Duke's Sanford School. I went to the open houses at both programs two weeks ago, and saw strong pros and cons to each program. Fundamentally, similar factors attract me to both programs: the small, intimate class sizes; the receptiveness and accessibility of the faculty; the quantitative emphasis of the curricula; the focus on domestic policy; the strength of the career services staff.

  • I believe I want to work in DC after I graduate; I'm interested in economic approaches to anti-poverty policy, and would seek a position in the federal government or a policy research institute (I'm currently a federal employee). I've gone to lengths to make sure that GSPP is a recognized name in DC and has a network of alums; I'm concerned about the fact that so many grads stay in the Bay Area. (In fact, the California-centric nature of the program was a pretty big initial deterrent to me.) I'm a little less sure about how Duke's name (and Sanford's, in particular) carry, but the proximity to DC and network of alums there, at least, seem strong.
  • I love the accessibility and the strength of the economics department at Berkeley (I'm an economist, myself, and may eventually want to go for a PhD....), and apparently it's easy to take classes there. Duke's econ department is less prestigious.
  • From what I hear, GSPP is somewhat more quantitatively rigorous than Duke (a plus in my book).
  • I'm more attracted to being in the Bay Area than Durham (though that's not a huge concern for me as it would be to many).
  • I think this is somewhat petty of me, but it's hard to ignore the differences in resources between the two programs (Duke has money to burn, and it shows in the facilities and opportunities for the students).
  • And, finally, it matters to me (though I'm not sure how much it should) that Berkeley is a better established and top ranked program with well-renowned faculty. Program recognition is pretty important to me.

The grant and assistantship that Duke offered add up to about $38K, so my annual tuition at Sanford would be just over $4000. GSPP only offered me a $5000 grant. Furthermore, I'm not a California resident, so that means tuition would be about $30K in the first year. (It would be cheaper as an in-state student during the second year.) I would try to obtain a GRA or GSI position in order to work above 10 hours per week, hopefully in both my first and second years (how likely is this?). And, in addition to the tuition differences, the cost of living is obviously vastly different. All in all, I estimate it would cost me about $42,500 over two years to attend Duke ($8500 tuition + $34000 living costs, from the program's estimates). I'm highly uncertain what cost to expect from Berkeley over the two years, though: It would be contingent on work opportunities, and so on.....

Are there any GSPP or Duke students or alums who can weigh in on whether GSPP is worth the premium in price over Duke, particularly for someone who wants to take the degree outside of CA? And, if possible, could someone give a realistic cost estimate for GSPP for a person in my situation? I would have a much harder time turning down Berkeley than Duke, but I suppose I should know whether GSPP deserves the pedestal I've placed it on, given the price.....

Many, many thanks in advance.

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I can only weigh in from my own research and proximity to Berkeley. Berkeley is quite simply an amazing school, including GSPP. Most people absolutely love being at UC Berkeley. The program is very high ranked (#1 for public policy in some publications). Berkeley itself has been an intellectual capital in the U.S., especially politically, for 50 years.

Finally, a subjective view point. There are very few metropolitan centers in the United States that are as nice overall (weather, culture, art, tech, etc) as the SF Bay Area.

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First off, thanks for coming to us with a well-informed and researched "X v Y" post--it's clear that you already know a lot of what is generally recommended to be looked into.

I'm a little surprised that the living costs at Duke are that high? But I will say that San Francisco, pretty as it is, is not a cheap place to live.

UC Berkeley is a big school so I'm sure there are a lot of TA/GRA positions available; you might want to ask Goldman what their policy is and how much they support students looking for those positions because I know at UCSD IR/PS they discourage students from TA-ing their first quarter but actively support them looking for positions in subsequent terms.

Edited by OregonGal
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Thanks for the input, Eclectic and OregonGal -- and congratulations on your admits! Best of luck this fall.

@Eclectic4: I agree that I'm a bit heartsick at the prospect of turning down Berkeley and everything that comes with it: atmosphere and culture, prestige, weather, multi-departmental resources.....I'm having a tough time looking at the hard numbers and deciding whether those things are worth (at least) a $25,000 difference in price. (I realized last night that unlike all of the other schools that offered me funding, Berkeley's grant is only for the first year! So add another $5K onto the price tag....ouch.) But I'd try to justify it on the basis of that marginal increase in rankings/reputation.....from #6 to #1 in policy analysis. Shaky logic, I know, unless I can get the input of people who think it's worth it.

@OregonGal: Now that I think about it, I'm surprised that the two schools' cost of living estimates are so close to one another, as well. I had been going on what was listed on each program's website; Duke's is here: http://sanford.duke.edu/graduate/mpp/admissions/cost_of_attendance.php. Perhaps that difference ($4k per year) is realistic if one buys a car in Durham (which I would probably do) -- otherwise it does seem like there ought to be a larger discrepancy between the two!

From what I've heard first-hand, GSPP students don't have trouble getting TA / GRA positions within the university....but it does seem like it would be a stroke of luck (and a stretch, time-wise) to get one of these positions in the first semester.

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Well, there are two things to remember with those COA estimates: 1) they tend to estimate a bit generously and 2) that's a good thing because those total COA estimates are the basis of people's Grad PLUS student loan amounts, so I'd rather have them overestimate than underestimate and leave people underfunded. Two big things popped out at me for Duke's numbers--$4400 for food and $3300 for personal expenses? Other places I've looked at budget about $1500-1800 for personal expenses, especially since transportation is its own line item, and I certainly wouldn't budget more than $350/month for food! You can cut $1500-$2000 out of that COA just by not assuming you'll be eating out every meal and budgeting $200-240 per month for food costs.

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Hey RWest,

I'm a current Sanford MPP, and I turned down many of the same schools as you (but not Berkeley). There are definitely students here who chose Sanford over Berkeley, however. Here are a couple thoughts for you:

1. The rankings are not rigorous and pretty useless. I'd say the policy analysis rankings are more or less reflective of who is in the top tier, but don't expect anyone to think of them like law or business rankings. As someone who worked as a policy analyst in DC before coming to school, most people will just look at your university name and Duke and Berkeley both have very strong names.

2. Durham is cheap to live in. I'd say most students spend $300-$400 a month on rent, and most other costs are low. My partner and I splurged on a $1300 house with three bedrooms and a huge yard (cheap!!) Also, the weather here is great, and we have really beautiful, defined seasons (and warm winters). I've lived in the Bay Area and I wouldn't put it ahead of NC. Plus warmer beaches!

3. Sanford is really strong in DC. I think at least half our alumni go there, and we are a quick 4.5 hour drive (or 6 hour train ride) if you want to go up for interviews. I do think it's easier to go to DC from Sanford than GSPP. I do have the impression that it's harder to come from Berkeley to DC.

My honest assessment is that you will get a higher ROI on your lower tuition at Sanford than paying more at Berkeley. I had to make similar decisions last year. Ultimately, the schools are not the far apart on most indicators, so the huge tuition difference is worth making central to your decision. That said, Berkeley is great, too, and I don't know if I could have turned it down, either. Good luck on your decision, and feel free to message me with any questions.

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I am on the waitlist at Berkeley. However, for other reasons even if I get in I need to choose one of the East Coast schools I got into (Columbia, Upenn, or JHU).

Berkely though and the Bay Area def are very hard to beat, and this is coming from someone who has lived and traveled all over the world.

Having said that, there is truth to the fact that Berkeley is an expensive city as it is within the cost realm of San Francisco (It's across a bridge and only 5 miles maybe). San Francisco is the 2nd most expensive area in the country after New York City.

This has to be factored in to one's coa beyond the tuition.

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Just to clarify, Berkeley is somewhere close to across the bridge from SF, but its rent prices are significantly cheaper. The closer to campus, the more pricey it is. Regardless, if you end up paying 1k/mo for your own room in a 2-bedroom apt, it will be decent in space (though perhaps not quality due to the age of the buildings?) and far more than the hole in the wall you would get in NYC. If you live about a half mile away from campus, rents decline drastically. California is also the bread basket of the country, so produce prices are significantly cheaper than the East Coast. There are plenty of college-affordable hole in the walls.

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Just to clarify, Berkeley is somewhere close to across the bridge from SF, but its rent prices are significantly cheaper. The closer to campus, the more pricey it is. Regardless, if you end up paying 1k/mo for your own room in a 2-bedroom apt, it will be decent in space (though perhaps not quality due to the age of the buildings?) and far more than the hole in the wall you would get in NYC. If you live about a half mile away from campus, rents decline drastically. California is also the bread basket of the country, so produce prices are significantly cheaper than the East Coast. There are plenty of college-affordable hole in the walls.

Yes, the cost is a little bit less than SF. However, it is still an expensive place to live, as are all places in the Bay Area minus maybe a few areas of the south east bay. Even Oakland can be quite expensive (right next to Berk).

My only point is that the rent and prices will be more than 80-90% of the country. As you said, $1,000 might get you a decent room or maybe even a decent studio. But, in other places $1,000 might get you your very own house or 2 bedroom apartment.

Even though I am a Berkeley fan, if you are planning on working on the East Coast and you've been offered significant scholarship money, maybe Duke is a better choice.

I am facing a similar problem though. I got into a top notch MPA program (Columbia SIPA) at one school with no $ and a good but not top 10 mpa (Upenn Fels) with a good scholarship and a cheaper place to live. A major consideration I have been needing to face is the fact that the average salary of policy or government/ngo jobs often are not something to brag about, at least starting. This makes funding offers all the more important. If I was applying to law school, I'd be less concerned.

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I guess I should chime in a bit -I'm a current student at Goldman and can add a bit of perspective to the conversation:

  • Although Goldman is located 3,000+ miles away from DC, we do have a very strong presence there. Outside of the Bay Area, the next largest group of alums are in DC and its a hefty %. I will say that Berkeley is very much a California state school and for many of our client based projects (and in classroom examples), California will be used as a base. Are we still discussing national issues? Definitely. Being that California is the largest state population wise, many of the issues that exist here can be easily scaled up as well.
  • GSPP is a public policy program located in a public institution. It definitely doesn't have money to blow like Sanford but tends to generate a decent amount of money from alumni and philanthropies. The Goldman family gave an addn't $5 million a couple yrs ago for example. The school is looking to hire new faculty and has been on a nationwide search for the last year or so.
  • Admittedly, I was one of the lucky people to get my tuition paid for the first year. However, it was very easy to find a GSI position the following year and I will leave Goldman with a very manageable debt load. You will have to work a bit harder to GSI for all 4 semesters but students around the school seem to have a pretty easy time finding opportunities. GSPP students are well known around the Berkeley campus and professors from all departments will send opps over to our career services team.
  • Cost of living in the Bay can definitely be pretty high. If you have roommates, it's very manageable. I also moved to Oakland (which is awesome!) and chose to pay a bit more to leave in a bit more urban area. I would say that groceries here aren't too bad but restaurants are definitely expensive (but tasty, organic, etc.)

I definitely enjoyed my Goldman experience but admittedly you will have a work a bit harder to ensure a lower debt load as compared to Sanford. You can definitely be successful with either degree but you should take into account the location and what opportunities are offered, the curriculum (!), and the community at the school. I would say here at Berkeley, you will have alot of opportunities to do interesting things (research, volunteering, etc) with a very intelligent and engaged Bay Area community, the curriculum has two client-based projects (one of which is our typically paid thesis) that has been very helpful in providing me professional contacts in the future and the Goldman community is small and close-knit.

Good luck with your decision!

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Oh man!

I just got off the waitlist to GSPP and am now admitted!!

However, due to a desire to be near key family members on the East Coast, I will be attending either Columbia or UPenn.

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