President's Letters

President Hill's letter to the community, May 2011

May, 2011

Dear alumnae/i and parents,

Recently I have had the great pleasure of travelling to a number of cities for celebrations of Vassar’s Sesquicentennial and seeing many of our alumnae/i and other friends in attendance. These acknowledgements of our 150-year history have included a wonderful original theatrical presentation, “Vassar Voices,” developed from letters, diary entries, articles, speeches, and other sources from our past and present, performed by casts of both noted alumnae/i actors and current drama students. The programs also have featured video footage of campus and students and faculty from as early as the 1930s to the present. And members of our wonderful choir and women’s chorus have travelled with us to bring their talents to our visits. 

The alums and other supporters of the college present at these celebrations could not have seemed more proud of the Vassar brought to life through these programs. There is so much to celebrate about the college, so many world-changing people and events that comprise our legacy, so many contributions in all fields by our graduates. It is, then, within this context that I have been considering the viewpoint expressed by some in higher education and government that the kind of education we provide at Vassar is no longer relevant.

Many of you have seen these discussions in the public media about the value and quality of higher education in America, particularly the kind of education offered by institutions like Vassar. Attacks come from many angles: some critics, using a business model, point to the inefficiencies of institutions of higher education; others point to the inability of colleges and universities to measure precisely the growth of their students; there is tension between the efficiency of distance learning and large lectures and the benefits of small class discussions; and there is disagreement about what kinds of skills this ever more complex world needs in those who are to guide it in the future, with some stressing the importance of specific vocational preparation.

Some of these criticisms about higher education in the U.S. result from families’ concerns about being able to afford high quality education for their children. Our educational system, historically a major engine for equal opportunity and a pathway to the American Dream, is under severe stress – and as a result many people’s dreams of relief from economic anxiety are evaporating. The wealthy can protect themselves from deteriorating public education by sending their children to private schools and colleges and universities. Families of more modest means cannot. 

These critiques require institutions like Vassar to be leaders in speaking out about the importance, for our society and for the world, of educating young people well, in ways that go beyond teaching facts or particular job skills. Education is needed that models critical thinking and problem-solving, that fosters creativity and gives students confidence about a future in which they will work all over the world, with multiple changes of course and career. 

At Vassar we are doing all we can to make access to the higher education we value available to all talented students, not just those who can afford it. We know that there are intelligent, creative, and dedicated students throughout America’s secondary schools, and our Admissions Office actively seeks out such students, helps them to understand the kind of education they would receive at Vassar, and emphasizes that they can afford that education. 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. Coming to Vassar also involves financial considerations, but making Vassar financially affordable to families of all means is the job of the institution. 

As you know, we have four approaches that help us succeed: a recruitment strategy that ensures that our applicant pool represents the broadest possible spectrum of those talented students; an admissions policy that only considers students’ qualifications, without consideration of their ability to pay; a policy that we meet the accepted students’ full need for all four years of their education, even when that need changes; and a no-loan policy for students from families whose incomes are less than $60,000 a year. Vassar is among a small group of peer schools that use all of these ways to support access.

In making a Vassar education affordable for a broad range of families, the college develops financial aid packages that include not only Vassar scholarships but also income from students’ summer and campus jobs, parental contributions, and loans. We balance Vassar’s commitment to making education affordable with a belief that students and their families who seek that education also understand its value and are willing to make a contribution of effort and resources. Sixty-six per cent of all of our students receive some financial aid; 60% receive Vassar scholarships, with an average grant of just under $35,000, as of October 2010. This means that the average financial aid grant covers almost two-thirds of Vassar’s comprehensive fee. The size of Vassar scholarships depends on a number of factors, primarily family income and number of children in college. One hundred and thirty-four members of this year’s freshman class with family incomes over $105,000 received aid; 126 freshmen with family incomes ranging from $105,000 to $60,000 received aid; and 163 with family incomes below $60,000 received aid. In total, the college will spend $53.6 million on grant aid from its own resources in 2011-12, more than a quarter of its operating budget.

The amount students contribute to the cost of their education by working varies depending on their family income and their class year at Vassar. Summer work expectations range from $1,100 to $2,450; income from campus jobs ranges from $1,750 to $2,180. The contribution expected from parents of students receiving financial aid varies from nothing to as much as $50,000. The college also asks some students to take advantage of federal loan programs to help meet their full financial need. The average amount of such loans over a student’s four years is $14,259; this year Vassar substituted grants for loans for 440 students whose family incomes are less than $60,000 a year. 

The level of institutional financial support to which we’re committed, and which we believe is absolutely right for the college, also presents challenges as we work to balance our budget. But we continue to strive to meet those challenges because this commitment benefits everyone in the community and is integral to our identity.  Our student body is the most socioeconomically diverse in the college’s history. Students and faculty note the richer exchange of ideas when a range of viewpoints, from people of different backgrounds, experiences, and values, are present. Especially in the context of our 150th year, we should acknowledge that over the course of its history, Vassar has repeatedly demonstrated its leadership as a bold, world-changing institution.  Our present efforts to make a Vassar education accessible to all qualified students are absolutely consistent with our identity, our mission, and our proud history. 


Catharine Hill

Posted by Office of Communications Sunday, May 1, 2011


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