Vassar awarded new Cooke Prize for Equity

Enrolling low-income students and allocating financial aid is something that many colleges and universities struggle with today. Vassar however, has stood out to many as particularly dedicated to socioeconomic diversity among its student body. In September, Vassar was ranked the most economically diverse college in the United States by the New York Times.

Last Tuesday, April 7, Vassar was rewarded for such efforts, becoming the inaugural winner of the $1 million Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for its financial aid work.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is an organization dedicated to advancing the education of promising students stricken with financial need. It offers the largest scholarships in the country, academic counseling and other direct services to help high-performing, low-income students develop their talents and receive appropriate educational opportunities. The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is the largest award in the nation recognizing a college making strides in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to successful graduation.

Under the leadership of President Catharine Hill, whose tenure began in 2006, Vassar underwent significant efforts to become a more socioeconomically diverse college campus. Since Hill’s arrival, the College’s financial aid budget has more than doubled to over $60 million, with approximately 60 percent of current Vassar students receiving some scholarship aid. Nearly 25 percent of Vassar’s current first-year students are eligible for a federal Pell Grant, which is available to students whose annual family income is $40,000 or less. Vassar has also steadily increased its enrollment of first generation students, with 70 or more in each Vassar first-year class since the 2011-2012 academic year. After taking scholarships into account, the average annual cost of attending Vassar for lower-income students is about $6,000, a figure many students cover much of that cost through campus jobs and loans.

One of the major ways in which Vassar was able to prioritize financial aid was its return to a need blind admissions policy in 2008. According to Director of Student Financial Services at Vassar, Jessica Bernier, “Our goal with returning to a need-blind admissions policy was to help encourage all students to apply, and we didn’t want students to not apply because they could not afford Vassar or be afraid that they would not be admitted because they were unable to pay.”

President Hill also weighed in on the importance of creating a socioeconomically diverse student body: “It contributes to our country’s commitment to equal opportunity and social mobility. A BA is more important now than ever, and in America, access to higher education depends on race and income, and not just merit. Also, our students learn more when diverse perspectives are represented on campus. If all our students had similar backgrounds and life experiences, the learning opportunities in class and outside class would be diminished. And, also, our graduates will be entering a world after Vassar that is very diverse. Learning how to navigate a diverse community while at Vassar contributes to our students being prepared for life beyond Vassar.”

Colleges have neglected to enroll low-income students for several reasons. Economically, providing financial aid strains the budget of colleges and many have small endowments so they are further restricted. Furthermore, low-income students often have lower SAT and ACT scores which can hurt the rankings of schools.

The Cooke Foundation other hopes to generate more momentum around issues of socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Vassar, Amherst, Harvard, Pomona, and state universities of North Carolina and California are leaders in enrolling top students regardless of economic background. However, the Cooke Foundation and its supporters agree that there is still much work to be done at most top schools.

Vassar reportedly plans to use the funds from the prize in three ways: increasing support for undocumented students, providing resources for funding internships for lower income students, and contributing to the “Transitions” pre-orientation program, which strives to ease the cultural transition many students experience upon arriving at Vassar.

President Hill elaborated on these projects: “The Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) has been spending some time this year on how to continue to strengthen the Transitions program, and some of the resources will be used to support those initiatives. We started admitting “Dreamers” about seven or eight years ago.  For any given level of need (we meet the full need of all admitted students), there is a greater cost to Vassar because they are not eligible for federal aid, such as Pell grants. So, we’ll also use some of the resources to help with these greater expenses. And, finally, we have been trying to expand our internship opportunities for all students, as we focus more on helping students transition to life beyond Vassar. Some of the resources will be used for internships for lower income students, who aren’t in a position to accept unpaid internships.”

Director of the Career Development Office (CDO) Stacy Bingham expressed her excitement at the fact that the Cooke Prize will support internship opportunities for lower-income students. Bingham remarked that “Internships are critical for experiential learning, clarification of career goals, and marketability in the hiring process. Robust support for internship funding is a natural extension of financial aid at Vassar. Thanks to support from the Internship Grant Fund (IGF) and now the Cooke Prize, we are making real headway at addressing this great need.”

Despite the efforts to which Vassar’s prize money will go, however, leadership of the Students’ Class Issues Alliance (SCIA) organization on campus believes that there is still work left to do. According to Leela Stalzer ’17: “Many students come to Vassar not completely understanding their statements of financial aid, and the Financial Aid part of the Vassar College website seems to be primarily geared toward applicants, rather than current students. I also think that if we want to be seen as an inclusive campus, we should be doing more to improve our attitudes about and behavior toward the Poughkeepsie community. ” Stalzer did, however, remain hopeful for the future: “Campus groups are working to make the campus more accessible for undocumented students. SCIA is working on ‘Navigating Vassar,’ a guide for lower income students that aims to provide a realistic picture of college costs and help them identify and use campus resources.”

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