As my first year at Vassar draws to a close, I have recently been trying to recollect my first impressions of the College as a prospective student. While in many ways I have found that Vassar exceeded my expectations, it is equally important—if not more so—to examine the ways in which the College does not live up to its public image. Additionally, the differences between the impression that Vassar strives to leave on those outside of Vassar and that which it presents to its own student population necessitate further scrutiny.
While the nature of advertising intimates an exaggeration of positive elements and a concealment of flaws, the institution behind the advertisements has a responsibility to convey a reasonably honest portrayal of itself. Although Vassar is certainly not the only college or university to highlight and overemphasize characteristics that appeal to the general public, it needs to consider the message that this representation conveys. There is plenty that Vassar should be proudly displaying that it instead conceals and there is plenty that it has an ethical duty to disclose to its own population and to the public that it instead suppresses.
Students are drawn to Vassar by a variety of aspects of the College: the wide range of organizations, the beautiful campus and sense of community; its dedication to meeting demonstrated financial need, the diverse student body and the liberal-mindedness of the school; its rigorous academics, vast array of study abroad opportunities and high post-graduation success rates.
While most of this is, to an extent, true, these frequently publicized factors do not paint an entirely accurate picture of Vassar.
Vassar must address the discontinuities between reality and the images that the institution presents to the student body and to the public.
For many prospective students, part of the appeal of Vassar, like of other small liberal arts colleges, is its strong sense of community. To a large extent, Vassar succeeds on this front: Student fellows and house teams lay the foundation for a cohesive community from the outset of freshman year, and a variety of house- and campus-wide events sustain this overall sense of unity.
Certain boundaries continue to exist within the community, however, which Vassar must acknowledge and strive to overcome.
As everyone at Vassar is undoubtedly aware, the student body is overwhelmingly politically and socially liberal. In a sense, the general political alignment of Vassar students has a unifying effect; it also, however, isolates those who are farther to the right on the political spectrum. Despite the overwhelming liberality of the student population as a whole, Vassar should approach political differences with the same respect and tolerance with which it typically addresses differences of race, class or gender.
Additionally, the Vassar community, as students frequently acknowledge, is fairly isolated from the Poughkeepsie community. While the Career Development Office and Field Work Office have been widely successful in their efforts to get students involved in the community, this involvement is usually contingent on earning course credit. Although this is undoubtedly a significant first step, the Vassar community will not truly be integrated into that of the greater Poughkeepsie area until students are motivated to participate in off-campus activities without further incentive.
Greater financial assistance, beyond tuition, would ensure that Vassar students would have greater opportunities to immerse themselves in the community of the Hudson Valley. Many students, whether or not they have any interest in exploring the city outside of the “Vassar Bubble,” are unable to afford the added costs of transportation and food that leaving campus necessitates.
While Vassar is more committed to meeting financial need than many of its fellow institutions, it still has a long way to go. While the Vassar Administration, and namely President Catharine Bond Hill, has strived to increase socioeconomic diversity and increase lower-income students’ access to higher education, the student body continues to be significantly skewed toward the upper class. Although the implementation of need-blind admissions marks a notable improvement in the unequal decision process, it does not rectify the socioeconomic inequality of college populations, and Vassar is no exception.
The financial burden of attending Vassar extends beyond the initial tuition cost and continues to hinder students’ daily lives throughout all four years. The College does little to alleviate costs of living, such as books, food (outside of the meal plan) and travel, which underlines class differences within the student population. Additionally, the lack of resources available to students who stay on campus during breaks magnifies the financial strain of those who cannot afford to return home throughout the year.
The disparities in the demographics of the student body reach beyond socioeconomic background. Although in many ways the College is committed to maintaining and increasing diversity, it must additionally focus on racial and cultural diversity. The predominantly white, upper- and middle-class demographics of the College contribute to a certain amount of bias and intolerance that continues to permeate the climate of Vassar despite its reputation as a socially liberal institution with a tolerant and diverse community. 64.5 percent of the class of 2019 is white and only 69.5 percent previously attended a public school.
In general, some students, faculty and administrators alike are–at least outwardly–accepting of gender nonconformity, but Vassar still has prejudices to overcome in order to create a truly safe community space. In order to progress toward a more tolerant, informed environment, Vassar must first establish a clear, cohesive vision of what this should look like. For instance, while the College tends to exaggerate the effectiveness of its gender-neutral bathroom initiative to its own students, it simultaneously seems reluctant to share this policy with the public. Tour guides do not mention gender-neutral bathrooms to prospective students and their parents, nor does the Vassar website bring their presence to the attention of visitors.
To be fair, there are countless ways in which Vassar accurately fulfills its public image. On a basic level, the campus is just as beautiful, if not more so, as it appears in the pictures it displays in brochures and on social media. Vassar is considerably ahead of most of its fellow institutions in terms of financial aid, diverse curricula and acceptance of a multiplicity of identities and the expression of these identities.
It is important to celebrate these victories, but it is equally crucial to continue to question and challenge all aspects of the Vassar community.