On Sept. 8, The New York Times published a ranking of the most “economically diverse top colleges,” in which Vassar ranked as the most diverse of all elite colleges. The ranking was a part of The New York Times website “The Upshot.” The study aimed to measure the efforts of top colleges pertaining to economic diversity. Despite this ranking, some students still cast doubt upon the significance of these findings on the experiences of students.
In order to calculate the ranking, The Upshot calculated a “College Access Index,” based on the share of freshmen in recent years who came from low-income earning families—measured by the share receiving a Pell grant and on the net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families. First, the data utilizes figures about freshmen Pell grant recipients in 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14, the average received in 2008. Then it factors in the net price of attendance by considering the average total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including tuition, fees, room and board, after taking into account federal, state and institutional financial aid, for students who come from households earning between $30,000 and $48,000 a year and qualifying for federal aid. Loans and wages from work-study jobs were counted in the net price.
In this area of cost to students and their families, Vassar’s need-blind policy sets the College apart from many other institutions of higher education. Director of Financial Aid Jessica Bernier explained, “We are able to offer need-based aid for our students, as well as being able to meet 100 percent of the demonstrated need of our students. In addition, we are able to offer students from families with incomes below $60,000 additional Vassar Scholarship instead of a student loan as part of their financial aid package. Finally, Vassar is need-blind in the admission process, which means that we are able to get students to apply and be admitted, many of whom may not have applied if need was considered as part of their admissions application.”
Finally, the study compared the average cost of tuition for a student of a low-incoming earning family with approximately what portion of the endowment was alloted per student. Somewhat limiting the scope of eligible colleges, only institutions with a four-year graduation rate of 75 percent or higher in 2011-2012 were considered. A college with an average score on the two measures in combination will receive a value of zero.
From 2012-2014, Vassar College gave 23 Pell grants, and in 2008, it gave 12. The net price of attendance for low- to middle-income families was $5,600, and the endowment per student was $340,000. This ranking led Vassar to achieve the highest ranking on the College Access Index of 3.1.
Other colleges featured in the top ten include Grinnell College, Harvard University, Pomona College, Susquehanna University and Columbia University. Vassar was still ranked significantly higher than second-ranked Grinnell, which had a college access index of 2.7.
Vassar administrators have been pleased with receiving recognition for its policies related to socioeconomic diversity. Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Art Rodriguez stated, “It’s great that Vassar has been recognized for its efforts to support students that could not afford college on their own. This recognition reflects Vassar’s long-standing history and mission to provide educational opportunities for all students. I’m grateful to be a part of the College at this time and I look forward to continuing our efforts to provide a first rate education to all students, regardless of their ability to afford it on their own.”
Despite Vassar’s top ranking on diversity, students involved in issues of socioeconomic diversity and inclusion at the College prove to be more skeptical about what this ranking actually means. Leader of the Students’ Class Issues Alliance (SCIA) Leela Stalzer ’17 notes that while this ranking may seem universally praiseworthy, the distribution of wealth at Vassar is skewed.
She explained, “The actual economic distribution is still vastly different from that which exists in the United States. There are many students at Vassar with an enormous amount of wealth, and students are quite prone to hearing classist microaggressions in addition to facing classism in very tangible ways and campus events often glorify wealthiness.”
Treasurer of the SCIA Ian Clark ’17 also highlighted the difference between economic diversity in the abstract and the College’s handling of the socioeconomic diversity of its students and cast doubt upon universally praising this study’s findings. He explained, “[I]n promoting socioeconomic diversity, Vassar should be equipped to accommodate students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. We particularly find that the school does not fully address the hidden costs of a college education, such as textbooks, that can leave students financially strained, despite the strong financial support of the school in covering tuition costs for many students.”
Clark hopes that the ranking will translate into improvements in provisions for socioeconomic diversity once students arrive on campus. He explained, “Pell grants (used by The New York Times in determining [the] most economically diverse colleges) and other financial aid can greatly expand education opportunities for low-income students, but expanding and simplifying access to available financial resources once a student is at school is a responsibility the College holds if supporting socioeconomic diversity is a mission the College is committed to.”