On March 20, Vice President for Finance and Administration, Betsy Eismeier, sent an email to the Vassar community announcing the school’s decision to increase the total comprehensive fee for attendance of Vassar College by 3.5% next year.
This decision, which was made by the Board of Trustees in their mid-March meeting, marks the fourth consecutive year that the College has increased the fee by that rate.
It is expected that the actual cost of providing a Vassar education will rise to over $72,000 per student next year; however, Vassar makes one-third of its income from investment returns on the endowment and another 9% from donations made by alumnae/i, parents and others. The combination of these subsidies discount this figure to the roughly $60,000 comprehensive fee for which students and their families are responsible.
The comprehensive fee is decided by a collaboration between the administration and the Board of Trustees and includes tuition, the student meal plan, residential hall cost, the student activity fee and more. Rising costs in a combination of these areas will lead to the $2,000 increase in price of a year at Vassar.
Vassar Student Association (VSA) President Jason Rubin ’13 justified the increase, noting that “There’s not a lot of fluff [in the budget]. There aren’t any easy cuts to make.”
As Eismeier made clear in her email, the College understands how expensive Vassar is, and works to make sure that the cost of tuition doesn’t prevent anyone from attending.
“At the time we are setting the price increase, we are also looking at the planning parameters for financial aid and recognizing that we will find a way with financial aid to bridge the gap for all the families who demonstrate need,” Eismeier explained.
She continued, “We’re very mindful of the fact that it’s expensive to come to Vassar for the person whose family income can support the full price. We’re conscious of the fact that we have to have controls over the price increase.”
According to Rubin, one concern that arose with the tuition increase dealt with who would feel its effects. He said that families of middle-class students will feel the effects of the pending increase.
“When you think about it, because of a lot of our financial aid policies, this isn’t really going to affect people who are on large amounts of financial aid,” he said.
“It isn’t really going to affect people who can pay full price, obviously it’s an increase, it’s not a small number, but if you can afford to pay full price, you can afford this price as well. The main issue is what it does to students in that sort of middle class where the increase does have a big impact.”
Eismeier confirms that those who will most feel the effects of this tuition increase aren’t found on either end of the family income spectrum.
“The tension is not at either end. It’s the person who just misses qualifying for financial aid and for whose family it is perhaps a true sacrifice—for them it is a tough situation.”
Eismeier also said that this year, roughly 60% of families received some amount of financial aid to help pay the bill.
Director of Financial Aid Jessica Bernier pointed out that although tuition is increasing, this is a normal part of College operations.
“It’s not a new trend. It’s something that happens all the time.” This was echoed by Eismeier. “These 3.5% increases have been fairly regular.”
In the last decade, the cost of attending Vassar has increased by roughly $20,000. For the Class of 2007, the comprehensive fee was estimated at $39,000; in comparison, for the Class of 2016, the fee rested at almost $60,000. (The Miscellany News, “VC’s Peers Curtailing Need Blind Programs,” 11.1.2012.)
Though the total tuition is rising, many students won’t see much of a change in the costs of attending Vassar. As Bernier explains, “At least for financial aid here, since we are meeting 100% of the need of all of our students, they’re not going to see, at least the ones on financial aid, a big change. For many of our students, whatever increases in cost is absorbed into their financial aid packages. Having said that, there is always a few more students applying for aid and then qualifying for aid because of the increase,” she said.
Eismeier continued by saying, “In the last few years we’ve probably seen an increase of about 20 or so students each year needing financial aid but that is because of many factors, not just the increase of cost.”
Tuition increases are also not unique to Vassar. Bernier confirmed this. “It happens everywhere. It’s actually rarer to see a school that says they’re freezing tuition than it is to see one that is increasing tuition,” she said. “Everybody has increasing costs.”
Peer institutions’ fees — much like they do in several decisions of the college, included faculty compensation and load — play an important role in Vassar’s decision about tuition. Eismeier stated, “The key factor on curbing tuition would be if, in the marketplace, the institutions offering the kind of education that we offer begin to freeze their prices. If that were a developing trend, we would be subject to it as well because people would make that comparison.”
Eismeier went on to note, “Our average net price is lower than [that of] many institutions. We’re comparing what we call the ‘sticker price’ to the full price. And with that, we do have to be in a ballpark that is determined by the marketplace. Vassar’s cost of attendance appears very competitive compared to many other institutions when you consider average net price—because we offer comprehensive, need-based aid packages.”
Many institutions have opted to cut other programs in order to pay for rising costs. In particular, Wesleyan University’s Board of Trustees made the controversial decision to cut their need blind program last May to address rising costs, instead adopting a “need-sensitive” policy, resulting in student protests surrounding this change.
Middlebury College in Vermont and Williams College in Massachusetts, other selective liberal arts colleges within Vassar’s group of peer schools, have also recently scaled back their need-blind policies due to the effects of the recession.
Vassar has been forced to suspend its need-blind financial aid policy in the past. Fifteen years ago, faced with financial constraints, the Board of Trustees voted in support of a ten-year hiatus from need-blind admission (The Miscellany News).
Under the leadership of President Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar reinstated need-blind aid in 2007.
Rubin noted that since Hill reinstated the policy, the cost has increased. “When Vassar first went need-blind, the number of students who were projected to need financial aid under that system…was a lot lower than what it became with the recession which came right after.”
Despite the decisions of other institutions, the administration has made no attempts to alter its current financial aid system.
Both Eismeier and Bernier stressed that students who feel as if they are dealing with new challenges in their ability to pay the price of tuition should seek out help through the Office of Financial Aid.
As Eismeier stated, “We tried to emphasize in the letter that families should consult the Office of Financial Aid if they believe their circumstances have changed or they have new issues they’re coping with.”