President's Page

Working to Expand Access

By Catharine Hill, President

Not too long ago, I wrote in this column about being invited to the White House to discuss the issue of transparency by institutions of higher education when they offer financial aid to students and their families (Fall 2012). In January, I was invited back, along with more than 100 other presidents of colleges and universities, as well as business people, foundation heads, and nonprofit executives. The subject this time was how we could work together to get more low-income students into, and through, college—something that, as anyone who has followed Vassar over the last several years knows, has long been a top priority for us, reflecting a core value of our college.

For me, the most significant aspect of the meeting was the long-overdue message it sent that higher education, and access to it, are vital components of public policy—especially when it comes to addressing one of the most pressing problems facing our country today: unprecedented levels of income inequality that threaten our national commitment to equal opportunity and social mobility. These are bedrock principles of our democracy, and guaranteeing opportunity and access to the kind of superb liberal arts education we offer to all talented students is one way to maintain our commitment to equal opportunity to the satisfying, challenging, and rewarding lives of purpose that such an education makes possible.

Michelle Obama could have been speaking at one of our many meetings about this subject on campus over the past several years when she told the gathering, “Right now, we’re missing out on so much potential because so many promising young people simply don’t believe that college can be a reality for them.” She continued on a personal note as she discussed her own alma mater: “The truth is that if Princeton hadn’t found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn’t seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school—never.” These are exactly the types of students that Vassar, and colleges and universities like us, need to reach.

The meeting also served as a sobering reminder that we have a political system that has become ever more focused on the short term, rendering it ever more incapable of dealing with long-term challenges. In such a climate, it is important to be able to share with peers ideas about addressing the situation, even as each of us made a formal commitment to expanding access to our institutions of higher education. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it, “We know there are no silver bullets or easy solutions here … [but] we can’t let the difficulty of the challenges facing higher education become an excuse for inaction.”

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about the leadership role we are playing in expanding access is the idea, as inaccurate as it is divisive, that students whose families pay full tuition are effectively subsidizing the educations of their peers who receive financial aid from the college. I addressed this question recently in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, noting that when the average amount spent by a college or university on educating each student is greater than the full sticker price—which is the case at Vassar, and at all of our peer schools—the reality is that every student is getting a subsidy, which is paid for by state appropriations, federal support, and earnings on endowments and gifts.

The letter went on to say, “When schools also offer financial aid based on a student’s financial need, needier students get larger total subsidies than wealthier students who are paying the full sticker price. The sources of these larger subsidies are the same as the general subsidy for all students, and not the tuition dollars of the wealthier students.

“Federal and state support, including preferential tax treatment on endowment earnings and gifts, are in large part justified

by promoting equal opportunity and economic and social

mobility in America. As these are long-held values of our society,

it is completely appropriate that needier students receive a greater share of these resources than wealthier students. It is the

significant rise in non-need-based aid at many colleges and universities that jeopardizes these objectives, mainly increasing the subsidy for higher-income families at the expense of needier ones.”

That should be a concern for all of us.