Vassar Today

President's Page: A Meeting of Minds

By Catharine Hill

Last summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in an essential Vassar tradition: academic collaboration with a student, living up to my full title of president and professor of economics. Thanks to a wonderful program called The Ford Scholars at Vassar, Ryan McGinley-Stempel ’08 was my research assistant for my academic work focusing on economics and higher education.

Ryan and I met throughout the summer to discuss the work he was doing for me, analyzing data on high-ability, low-income students. These students had scored well on scholastic aptitude tests, yet were underrepresented at our nation’s most selective schools, such as Vassar. Low income was defined as coming from the lower 40 percent of income distribution. We knew that about 13 to 16 percent of high-ability test takers (SAT and ACT) are low-income, but that they comprised only 10 percent of the student body in America’s highly selective schools. This posed the kinds of questions a true researcher loves: Why? Was it the result of admissions policies? Recruiting policies?

One summer’s work is not likely to give a definitive answer to questions like that. But what Ryan and I (along with Gordon Winston, my longtime collaborator and former colleague from Williams College) discovered together was really intriguing: there seemed to be a geographic component to the problem. Specifically, Ryan’s analysis of the data showed that students from a region of our country that stretches from the Mississippi River westward to the Sierra Nevada — an area with a high share of high-ability, low-income students — were more likely to be underrepresented at top-flight institutions than students from elsewhere. The highly selective schools are missing talented low-income students, in part because they aren’t looking in the regions where they are more abundant — and that suggests obvious strategies going forward.

As someone who is greatly looking forward to returning to the classroom when I teach a course at Vassar this semester, I was reminded by working with Ryan of all that’s at the heart of a liberal arts education. It was exciting to watch him make discoveries on his own, and it was wonderful to get to know him as a person, from his sense of humor (he describes the Microsoft Access application that we used as “Excel on steroids”) to his ambitions and goals (a political science and economics major and an Hispanic studies minor — for part of last summer, he was in Peru thanks to another terrific program, the Ann Cornelisen ’47 Fellowships — he’s also a member of the squash team; in short, he’s blazing his own unique path, and is therefore a quintessential Vassar student). When Ryan gave his presentation of our work at the Ford Scholars symposium this past October, naturally I was quite proud.

But maybe the best thing of all was that I was just one of more than two dozen Vassar faculty at the symposium who worked last year with Ford Scholars, on topics ranging from the history of the Underground Railroad in Poughkeepsie to innovation and production in China’s high-tech industry, from changing water consumption in American culture to the theory, research, and practice of parenting. Now in its 20th year, the Ford Scholars program encompasses more than 20 different academic departments and multidisciplinary programs at Vassar, as well as the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and the library. And what the Ford Scholars program does for our students and faculty in the humanities and social sciences, Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) does for those in the natural sciences. Every summer since 1986, Vassar students have conducted original, hands-on scientific research over the course of 10 weeks, under faculty direction. URSI students, too, present their findings at a major campus symposium in the fall.

Both the Ford Scholars and URSI programs are a testament to the most wonderful experience that students and faculty can have — working together to explore new ideas. As last year drew to a close, I was struck once more by what deep and lasting bonds that can create. First, I attended the memorial service for one of the most influential and amazing professors in Vassar history, Dr. Winifred “Tim” Asprey. Anyone who was there could see and hear what a deep and lasting impression Tim had made on her students. About a week later, we held the annual reception for faculty emeriti — and there you could see and hear the lifelong effect the students had had on their teachers. As I begin my own classroom teaching at Vassar, I feel deeply honored to have the opportunity to become part of that tradition.

Catharine Bond Hill signature
Catharine Bond Hill signature