VC still prioritizes aid after decline in funds

The Admissions office, housed within Kautz Admission House (pictured above) makes decisons regarding financial aid. Some students worry need-blind admissions will be cut in coming years. / Photo by Emily Sayer

New York Times study shows that Vassar College ranks highest among the elite colleges and universities that enroll students from lower-income backgrounds.

Princeton Review ranked Vassar as #2 for “Colleges with Best Financial Aid.” These reports still ring true even though the Vassar endowment has declined in the past fiscal year.

During the academic 2015/16 year, approximately 60 percent of the student body received financial aid totaling more than $60 million awarded in the form of Vassar Scholarship assistance, all of which was based on financial need of the student.

62 percent of students received need-based financial aid in the 2016/17 academic year.

The average aid package is $50,820, which includes all grants, scholarships, loans and work-study.

Of this amount, the average Vassar Scholarship is $41,974. According to the Office of Financial Aid, the total aid budget is around $62 million.

But some have shown concern that need-blind admissions could be affected by the lack of funding because Vassar would, after all, have to regulate spending to make up for the loss.

Would financial aid plans change in the future for current and prospective students? To many, it seems that implementing need-aware admissions is on the table.

Director of Student Financial Services Jessica Bernier answered these doubts: “At this point the Financial Aid budget will not change based on the endowment decline. Vassar is committed to meeting 100 percent of the demonstrated need for our students, therefore we continue to fund that at that rate.”

She continued, “The financial aid budget is set on a yearly basis with the current and future need of our students in mind.

Our financial aid programs are constantly being evaluated for a variety of reasons, from whether we are achieving the desired outcome from a policy change to the fiscal viability of maintaining the policy. A one year decline in the endowment income does not necessarily correlate with a change in our financial aid programs and policies.”

A decade ago, Vassar readapted to a need-blind admissions policy, which evaluates applicants strictly on their academic and extracurricular qualifications.

Additionally, Vassar announced in 2007 a policy to eliminate loans from the financial aid packages provided to students whose families earn $60,000 or less. This resulted in financial aid expenditures consuming a large part of the endowment.

Previous president Catharine Hill has kept the policy in place, even during the 2008 economic downturn which led to major losses in college endowments and caused other liberal arts institutions to drop similar policies.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell said in his podcast, “Revisionist History,” that Vassar “… Is the most open and accessible private school in the land… [because it] spent its marginal dollar on gathering the most interesting and diverse group of undergraduates possible.”

In the podcast, Hill talked about “making trade-offs on the margin” in order to increase the financial aid package for students. She explained that in order to make Vassar more accessible to all socioeconomic statuses, she has to maximize limited available financial resources. To ensure that students receive the best education, the school has to cut down extravagances like renovations and keep the need-blind admission policy in place.

Need-blind admission is crucial because it mixes students from all backgrounds. It spurs a diversity of viewpoints within the classroom and makes the student body less culturally and socially homogenous.

Vassar’s generous aid offer to admitted students attracts a lot of qualified applicants. Most of the students interviewed expressed that financial aid was indeed the deciding factor for them in choosing between Vassar and other communities. An anonymous freshman expressed that she is grateful to Vassar for increasing her financial aid due to her family’s financial situation changing at the end of her gap year.

Another first year added, “I think that I would have a very different mindset right now if I had chosen a school which had offered me less financial aid. It is a tremendous relief not to have to worry too much about finances so I can instead focus more on my education.”

Need-blind admissions guarantees that all admitted students will have their full need met for all four years they attend, and many express that they are very much satisfied with their current financial aid package and have received as much as needed.

One student responded, “It is enough to take a lot of stress off of my family, and it was one of the best financial aid packages I received.” Another disclosed, “It’s almost a full scholarship, so I’m very glad that I’m able to go here!”

Students also voiced that work-study is extremely helpful for offsetting the costs of textbooks and other class materials. One contributed, “I like my job and the hours and pay are good.”

However, some have also established complaints that it isn’t always easy to locate a job; a student noted, “At first it was a little bit difficult to find a work-study position because there are many that are department-specific, or only intended for upperclassmen.”

Two freshmen revealed that they are still in the process of looking for jobs. But upperclassmen suggest that it will get easier through time.

One proposed that the student employment system, JobX, could be more precise in updating available position information. The “discontinued advertisement” has resulted in the inefficiency of communication.

Students also express expectations for VC’s financial aid future. Some suggest that additional scholarship should be rewarded based on academic performance in order to encourage students to strive for excellence, while some hope that the financial aid plan could also cover textbooks.

One student exposited, “I really hope that Vassar continues to provide such outstanding financial aid to its students; it is truly an institution which is serving the greater good and should be a model for other colleges across the country.”

Bernier said of the future prospect of VC financial aid, “Any new financial aid policy changes must be approved by the Board of Trustees. If there will be a policy change regarding the financial aid program or need-aware admissions, then how these changes will affect all students are taken into consideration when/if any decision is made.”

Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Art Rodriguez stated, “We continue to review first-year applications from US citizens and Permanent Residents to the College under a need-blind admissions policy. The investment return on the endowment was disappointing, but the return was negative for just about all colleges and universities last year. As we look to the future, the College will continue to have discussions about our operating budget and spending, and determine what policies continue to make sense for us. As we discuss possible solutions to reducing spending in the future, we will consider all the options available to us.”

In the coming years, it’ll become clear whether these “options” will truly threaten the College’s need-blind admissions, or if the Board of Trustees will find viable alternatives in order to alleviate the budget crisis.

2 Comments

  1. Good article. “Need-blind” admission and “full-need met” are policies essential to Vassar’s continuing greatness. In 2015-16, *The Princeton Review* named Vassar #1 for financial aid discounting. Let’s hope we can remain so in 2016-17. In fiscal 2016, the 815 wealthiest colleges saw an average return of -1.9 percent, net of fees. Endowment declines arose chiefly, not from investment losses but from spending of endowment funds on expectation of investment returns that did not materialize (NACUBO Endowment Study, 3 Feb. 2017). The schools with the biggest losses were those most heavily invested in fossil fuels. Vassar in 2016 lost $18.4 million net of fees in investments, $9.1 million of which were from the college’s gas and oil partnerships. (The remainder of the $54.1 million loss came from spending endowment resources.) Year-over-year change in VC spending, 2016: Instruction and Academic support, -0.4%; Student services, +6.2%; Administration, +12.5%. Net increase in operating expenses, +4.7%. Change in VC revenue: Tuition, room, and board AFTER financial aid, +0.3%; Private gifts, -32.9%. To continue Need-Blind (a decision not yet made), Vassar in 2017 must increase alumni support and decrease spending on administration.

    • If you are counting on increasing alumni support to bridge the gap, maybe you should have thought twice about authoring the letter supporting the American Studies Association academic boycott of Israel? I would wager that you, and Vassar’s radical pro-BDS faculty, have done more to hurt alumni giving than any other faculty group in the history of the College. My alumni dollars, and those of many of my fellow alumni, are going elsewhere. Best of luck.

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