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Making Vassar an Affordable Choice

By Catharine Hill
In 1861, Matthew Vassar founded our college on the principle of equal opportunity, because he believed that young women deserved to strive for academic excellence on an equal footing with young men. Commitment to this principle has also meant ensuring, in our founder’s own words, “that no student of superior promise should be turned away due to a lack of means.” So he staked the college with $50,000 to establish a financial aid fund for promising students who could not otherwise afford to attend Vassar.

Meeting the need of talented students remains the sole focus of our financial aid program, and I’m proud to say Vassar’s legacy of access and affordability has only deepened over 150 years. Early in my presidency, we returned to an admissions policy that considers applicants strictly on the basis of their accomplishments and abilities, without consideration for their family’s ability to pay tuition, room, and board. If they are accepted and enroll, Vassar provides financial aid that meets the student’s full need all four years they attend the college. We support students from many different income backgrounds through financial aid packages that may include scholarship grants, loans, and school-year employment.

We took an added policy step in 2008, replacing loans with grants in the financial aid packages provided to any student whose family income is $60,000 or less (this school year, 467 out of almost 2,400 students qualified). We were concerned that the fear of accumulating a large loan burden might be discouraging talented low-income students from applying to Vassar. Were they to enroll, we also didn’t want the same fear to influence their educational goals and career ambitions.

The results are very encouraging. Over the last five years, our applications have increased 8 percent from 7,361 to 7,985 for the roughly 660 spots in the freshman class, and we know that our evolving financial aid policies have been an important factor. For example, this year’s freshman class includes 67 first-generation students, whose parents did not attend college. In addition, 61 percent of all Vassar students qualify for need-based scholarship aid from the college and will receive an average of $34,900 in support, totaling approximately $53 million and more than a quarter of the college’s operating budget.

Vassar has also recently focused on improving access for local students by launching the Poughkeepsie High School Scholarship Program in 2008. In the same spirit of our broader admissions and financial aid steps, we wanted to make sure college costs and debt concerns wouldn’t discourage qualified Poughkeepsie High students from applying to Vassar. So any Poughkeepsie High student who is admitted and needs financial support from the college now knows there will be no loans as part of his or her aid from Vassar. We couldn’t be more pleased with the early outcome of this initiative: While only two Poughkeepsie High graduates attended Vassar in the five years before the scholarship program began, eleven have enrolled in the four years since, including three who are in this fall’s freshman class.

That our student body is now the most socioeconomically diverse in Vassar’s history is far more than a numerical milestone. In Vassar classrooms, laboratories, and studios, our students and faculty note a richer exchange of ideas and a wider range of viewpoints from people with more varied backgrounds, experiences, and values. People learn more from confronting difference, and learning how to thrive amid difference is essential because our graduates are entering a world that is increasingly diverse. Moreover, demographic projections indicate that a broader cross-section of young people will attend college, so we must ensure that Vassar’s kind of residential liberal arts education remains relevant to the next generations of college students.

Choosing to come to Vassar involves energy, determination, and risk on a student’s part. Obviously that choice belongs to the student and his or her family. But making Vassar financially affordable to families of all means is our job. The level of support to which we’re committed, and which we believe is absolutely right for Vassar, certainly presents challenges to our overall budget, all the more so during these tight economic times. We will continue to meet these challenges because our efforts to make a Vassar education accessible to all qualified students are absolutely central to our identity, our mission, our leadership, and our proud 150-year history as a world-changing institution.

Catharine Hill, President

This column originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal, as part of a weeklong series honoring Vassar's Sesquicentennial.