New Trends and Patterns in SAIS Enrollment: Functional versus Regional Concentrations

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In the last few years, SAIS has dramatically expanded its degree programs and curricular options. With the addition of a Masters in International Public Policy, minors and a new concentration in International Political Economy, SAIS students today have more options to shape their academic experience.

These options, however, while exciting and numerous, have costs associated with them. Crowded foundational economics courses and problems related to bidding are some common complaints. Functional concentrations, such as Strategic Studies and Energy, Resources, and Environment, seem more populated than regional ones, indicating new trends in course enrollment.

What do these developments tell us about institutional supply and intellectual demand at SAIS? In the first of a two-part series, SAIS Observer staff writers meet with professors, students, alumni, and administrators to arrive at a clearer picture of what might be the reason for changing enrollments, attitudes and ambitions at a premier graduate school of international relations.

Professor Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies program, spoke to the Observer on the recent increase in enrollment in his concentration, noting that there were only 16 Strat concentrators in 1990 compared to over 120 this year. When asked about possible causes for the growth of his program, Professor Cohen acknowledged the perception that a functional degree may be more marketable than a regional one. He also argued that there is an increased tendency among students to study interactions between different regions, preferring a functional framework to integrate this comparative study. Professor Cohen further opined that perceptions of the international environment as becoming progressively unstable have contributed to the demand for Strategic Studies over regional studies and that the increasing number of international students at SAIS, already familiar with their home regions, opt for functional programs. However, he cautions against a categorical judgment on regional programs. The uptick in enrollment in the China Studies program, for example, might be indicative of a shift in priorities for 21st century students of international relations.  

Professor Cohen did express concern that large concentrations with priority-enrollments may result in reduced diversity within the department’s classes. Courses within the department frequently go to bid, and enrollment is prioritized for Strat concentrators over students from other departments. He said that much of the increase in the size of the program has been the result of students changing concentrations between admission and matriculation, and suggested that limiting such transfers could be one response the administration may want to consider.

Professor Walter Andersen, the director of the South Asia Studies program at SAIS, acknowledged the decline in interest in regional studies, but noted that this has been a national trend in both graduate and undergraduate programs. Professor Andersen rejects the idea that a functional degree is more marketable, stating that a regional course of study has wide applicability even when working in other regions. SAIS’ integration of economic study and language proficiency provides students with comprehensive training in regional studies. Interestingly, the South Asia Studies program has also experienced an increase in non-concentrator enrollment in its classes, indicating a strong interest for the study of the region, even if the institutional mechanism of a concentration is losing a degree of demand.

The introduction of minors to the SAIS program serves to institutionalize links to regional studies programs. Both Professors Cohen and Andersen recommended students pursuing a functional concentration to opt for a regional Minor and vice-versa. More formal support from the administration for minors presents certain challenges, however, including a lack of priority bidding for minors.

Given the rise in transregional security challenges in the 21st century and increased concerns about climate change, it’s no surprise that graduate students of international relations are actively seeking functional courses of study that are not anchored to one region. Going forward, the SAIS administration and faculty will need to continue to be responsive to the changing priorities of SAIS students.

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