SAIS Pandemic Finances – The Odd School Out

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By Richard Pedersen

SAIS Pandemic Finances – The Odd School Out

Over the coming year, SAIS students will navigate a graduate experience largely devoid of student interaction, deprived of necessary academic facilities, and disrupted by online learning difficulties, all at a higher tuition price. SAIS faculty, staff, and administrators are not much better off, facing the same difficulties of remote work and loss of community but at lower total compensation and with the added stress of pending administrative restructuring.

How did our community find itself in this situation? The obvious answer is COVID-19, which upended every school’s financial planning. However, that answer ignores a more complicated reality in which deferred decisions regarding SAIS’s future left it vulnerable.

More importantly, where do we go from here? The administration has not yet released a plan, but the SAIS Observer investigated student efforts to advocate for changes to SAIS tuition and education. While some of these suggestions include tuition decreases, others recognize the institution’s financial vulnerability, providing options that would not impact the school’s bottom line.

Out of One, Many

Understanding SAIS’s current state requires an understanding of SAIS’s financial relationship with the broader Johns Hopkins organization. The University operates what it calls a “responsibility centered management” model in which each school or business unit within the University retains responsibility for balancing their budget. This model has thus far proven successful at keeping budgets under control and revenue sources diverse, with the University as a whole running roughly 2% annual surpluses for the past decade.

These long-term surpluses and diverse income streams have allowed the University to remain in relatively strong financial health, despite COVID-related disruptions. According to the University’s financial planning town hall in June, the University initially envisioned an annual budget shortfall of $378 million over the next year as government contracts, elective medical procedures, and student enrollments threatened to dry up. Thankfully, however, these projections proved far more conservative than reality. More recent financial projections in June revised the projected deficit down to $156 million, which is projected to decrease further in light of the continued economic recovery.

Once the University recognized that COVID-19 would not pose an existential threat to its financial stability, it permitted minor deficit spending amongst the schools to address the pandemic’s short-term impact. In President Daniels’ August 6th letter to the University, he announced that the School of Arts and Sciences would provide a 10% reduction in tuition costs for the undergraduates. The faculty and staff, meanwhile, would receive financial support to fund childcare services. Full employee compensation has not yet been restored. Still, the University seems well on its way towards managing this crisis successfully and with at least some consideration for equity among the Hopkins community members.

The Odd School Out

The relatively smooth recovery of the broader University, however, belies the strain the pandemic has caused at SAIS in particular, which had been less prepared than other Hopkins institutions to weather the disruption. While the undergraduates received a 10% tuition decrease, Dean Cohen announced that SAIS would go ahead with its planned 3% tuition increase. Only after President Daniels’ August 6th letter announcing supplemental funding for each school did SAIS offer a $1,000 tuition credit, amounting to a 1.8% annual tuition reduction. More importantly, whereas most other business units within the University have strived to avoid reducing faculty or staff, SAIS has done both and has embarked on a school-wide restructuring.

Why is it that SAIS adopted more severe and lasting austerity measures than other schools within the University? The answer lies in SAIS’s long-term budgetary problems, which other schools have avoided. According to Dr. Gordon Bodnar, a member of the University’s Faculty Budget Advisory Committee and the SAIS budgetary committee, SAIS faced cost growth for many years before the pandemic, driven by aging facilities, growing faculties, and outdated administrative structures. Despite this slow-motion threat, unfortunately, the SAIS administration proved unable to mitigate these budgetary pressures before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The problems SAIS faced in either raising revenue or cutting costs were many and complicated: increasing the student body would run up against the limits of physical infrastructure, increasing the tuition would drive away applicants, eliminating layers of administration would require painful restructuring, and firing faculty would undermine the very heart of this school’s identity as a home for talented educators and policy practitioners.

Instead, the SAIS administration appeared to defer. This decision rested on hopes that a new facility at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, purchased by the University and rented by SAIS, would allow the student body to grow, generating revenue and solving any budgetary problems before another recession hit.  

At the same time, the school did not invest significantly in developing other sources of revenue. Competitor institutions such as George Washington University, for instance, brought in nearly $100 million from online graduate degree options pre-COVID, whereas SAIS online graduate offerings remain limited. While no single additional revenue source could entirely address SAIS’s budgetary imbalance, online degree or part-time student programs could have left the school on a better footing before the pandemic. Without reducing costs or developing other revenue streams, SAIS was at a disadvantage heading into the pandemic.

Once confronted with the additional impact of COVID, SAIS’s financial situation left the administration with few options other than to cut faculty and staff while increasing tuition for students. By not resolving SAIS’s long-term financial problems before the pandemic, the administration had little choice but to pass a significant part of its financial burden onto students, faculty, and staff during the pandemic.

Student reactions

Though not entirely clear to the whole student body, the reality of the school’s financial troubles has shaped the student response to the pandemic. SAIS Students for Fair Tuition (SS4FT), a student group that emerged following the move to online learning, initially advocated for reducing the financial burden on students in light of the ongoing pandemic and its effect on the educational experience. However, once the administration made clear that tuition reductions were not an option, the group pivoted to promoting new ideas to improve the student experience at little cost to the school.

SS4FT’s efforts began with sending a letter to the administration, calling for a reduction in tuition reimbursement. This letter generated little overt response, though Dean Cohen’s August 3rd letter laying out the school’s justification for continuing with tuition increases may have been sent in part to address SS4FT’s concerns.  

Just three days following Dean Cohen’s letter justifying the tuition increase, the SAIS administration announced a $1,000 tuition credit. SS4FT continued their advocacy efforts, following up with another letter and a request for a meeting.

The administration agreed, and, in August, representatives from SS4FT, SAIS student government, and the administration met. However, before the meeting, SS4FT was told in no uncertain terms that there would not be a negotiation over tuition prices.

SS4FT pivoted away from advocating for tuition reductions and instead put together a handful of suggestions by which the school might meet its budgetary obligations while improving the student experience. These ideas include extending library access beyond graduation or more course auditing opportunities for alumni.

Despite a generally positive response to the meeting from all parties involved, incorporating these ideas seems to have petered out. The administration has provided no additional information about the SS4FT proposals, nor have they put forth ideas of their own.

SS4FT sent a follow-up letter to the administration on October 5th, detailing new suggestions for new ways to improve the student experience at limited cost, though no response has been forthcoming.

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