Vassar Breaks From the Brat Pack

If you don’t pay much attention to higher education trends, you’d also never expect this news:

By demonstrating a school-wide commitment to attracting and graduating high-ability, low-income students Vassar College — a private, coeducational liberal arts college located in Poughkeepsie, New York — has earned the inaugural $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Really? That Vassar? The “Seven Sisters” Vassar?

It’s no surprise, however, if you read the interview Paul Glastris and Daniel Luzer conducted recently with Vassar president Catherine Bond Hill for College Guide, in which she explains how the school very consciously sought to change the socio-economic background of its student body soon after her arrival in 2006. It wasn’t easy, particularly after the financial meltdown of 2008, which hammered Vassar’s assets just like it did everyone else’s.

[Financial aid at Vassar} went up from about $27 million in 06-07 to about $58 million last year. I think we’re low sixties this year. More than doubled. And the share of low-income kids has gone up significantly. We almost doubled the share of students of color on campus. We went from not having very many first generation students—we weren’t even aware enough of it to even keep good records of it—to now having between 80 and 100 [out of about 600] in the freshman class who are first generation.

That’s impressive, and helps explain why Vassar is suddenly doing well in WaMo’s college rankings.

But then that’s another thing about Catherine Bond Hill: she doesn’t mind being “graded” for her school’s overall contributions. She’s split with the very powerful National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) over its three-pronged opposition (which Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus described last year for WaMo) to President Obama’s plans to rank schools for the “bang for the buck” they offer (the rankings themselves, the data transparency that makes it possible, and the linkage to federal funds).

This all requires integrity and guts, and a willingness to stare down alumnae and donors fond of a reputation for service to the children of elites. So we’re pleased to see Vassar and Hill honored for their efforts.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.