As she announced to the student body last week, President Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill is stepping down.ffrom office. While her emailed statement highlighted the best parts of a decade-long presidency, Hill’s eponymous brand of “Cappy-talism” has often been the subject of scrutiny in the past decade, with dissenters arguing that Hill’s business-style approach to administration has served the interests of the trustees over the students.
Above any parting compliments or lingering criticisms, however, Hill will be remembered for going against the overwhelmingly standard need-aware policies at peer institutions to switch Vassar back to completely need-blind admissions. Since Hill’s announced departure, many students have been asking the same question: who will fight for a need-blind Vassar after Cappy is gone?
Every member of the student body (and most of their parents) knows that a Vassar education isn’t cheap. While Vassar has always provided need-based financial assistance, admissions prior to Hill’s tenure were need-aware, meaning a prospective student’s financial need was on the table during their evaluation and could play into the final admissions decision. While this would only affect a marginal number of applicants, need-aware admissions are one part of a larger system of barriers limiting low-income students’ access to higher education.
Hill’s push for socioeconomic diversity comes alongside over 40 other institutions offering need-blind admissions and meeting full demonstrated need of U.S. citizens, but making education universally accessible is an uphill battle that begins in daycare and persists throughout high school. With many public schools supported primarily by local taxes, low-income areas are left with little resources to cover the core requirements for a diploma, let alone any of the tutoring, college-preparatory programs or one-on-one application assistance often found behind a “strong” applicant. Because of factors mostly outside of Vassar’s control, the socioeconomic mix of the student body has been and continues to be overwhelmingly skewed towards the upper class.
Also as a result of such developments, Vassar’s continued responsibility to need-blind admissions and financial aid is critical in fostering socioeconomic diversity in a collegiate student body. Hill’s legacy at Vassar in this regard clearly marks a step in the right direction.
According to information compiled by the Office of Institutional Research, since 2006, the portion of incoming freshmen receiving the Pell Grant has jumped from seven percent to 22. The Class of 2019 entered Vassar with an almost unprecedented 62.9 percent of matriculants receiving Vassar College grant aid, compared to the 45.8 percent graduating with the Class of 2010. Most importantly, however, is the nearly 15 percent rise in financial aid applications per class of matriculants. Since Hill’s presidency, more and more high-achieving, low-income students are applying to Vassar and getting in.
Still, need-blind admissions isn’t the great equalizer. Once low-income students are signed into the Matriculation Book and factored into the newsletter stats, many find that Vassar’s commitment to equal socioeconomic opportunity wanes.
While institutional measures such as the Transitions program are important initiatives for supporting low-income and first-generation students, there are still numerous difficulties these students face throughout their academic careers. Every semester, students pay outrageous prices for textbooks, with no system in place to subsidize those fees by the administration. Students who cannot travel over breaks are often left on campus without food, reliable transportation to a grocery store, or other basic services.
Generally, some critics of need-blind admissions argue that the system superficially values good press and favorable rankings over legitimately caring for low-income students. Such critiques underscore how need-blind admissions are not a panacea for the legacies of inequality that pervade institutions of higher education.
The hurdles facing low-income students in a still-vastly upper-middle class environment are significant and remain a key campus issue. Implementing administrative mechanisms to aid with these basic needs should be at the forefront of Vassar’s efforts to maintaining its commitment to socioeconomic diversity.
Additionally, it is vital to note that Vassar’s need-blind admissions policy does not apply to transfer and international students. While this is standard at most of Vassar’s peer institutions, it nonetheless underscores the limitations of need-blind admissions.
The lack of resources on campus for low-income students, coupled with the inherent shortcomings of many need-blind policies, highlights how far we still have to go as an institution in terms of not only bolstering diversity, but making sure those low-income students are properly cared for.
We at The Miscellany News believe that the transition to a new presidency holds great potential for Vassar’s future as an educational institution. While great strides were made during Cappy’s tenure, the College has a long ways to go in terms of fulfilling its responsibility of maintaining a diverse, inclusive and nurturing environment. One method for ensuring the selection process is imbued with these values is amplifying student voices and the VSA’s influence on these types of decisions.
Because the issue of need-blind admissions hits so close to home for many Vassar students, the VSA should have a significant say in any decision regarding need-blind admissions in the future. Accordingly, the student representatives chosen to serve on the President Search Committee should seek to uphold the College’s commitment to making financial aid our highest priority. Student input is crucial to this decision.
Going forward, the Board of Trustees and the President Search Committee should seek a candidate committed to furthering Vassar’s mission of increasing educational accessibility and providing opportunities for students from less privileged backgrounds.
During this search process and the ongoing debate about the future of need-blind admissions, student voices must be heard, acknowledged and incorporated into whatever decisions end up being made. Need-blind admissions and their subsequent effects on socioeconomic diversity are crucial first steps for creating a more inclusive educational environment.
We at The Miscellany News believe that commitment to need-blind admissions and fostering a supportive environment for low-income students must be at the forefront of the selection process for Vassar’s next president.
Additionally, the VSA must affirm the College’s decision to go need-blind and acknowledge the obstacles yet to be faced in fostering a conducive learning environment regardless of socioeconomic class.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.