Class Action: Vassar's Drive for Socioeconomic Inclusiveness

By Dale Mezzacappa '72

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Vassar Chapel. There were no statues of the Virgin Mary gazing heavenward, no kneelers, and, most baffling to this young product of Catholic schools, no altar. No altar!

This was unlike any church I had set foot in before, having grown up in a strictly Catholic, working-class neighborhood. My parents, as full of ambition for their daughters as they were, had never graduated from high school. My mom, bright enough to skip a grade, dropped out because she didn’t have nice clothes. My dad left in his senior year to support his widowed mother. I chose Vassar to expand my horizons. But seeing the chapel was my first real clue that I was entering a foreign place, a world of sensibilities far from my roots.

I arrived at Vassar in the fall of 1968. And forty years after my introduction to austere houses of worship, demitasse, and all-night bridge games — my Italian grandmother taught me gin rummy, but nobody in Josselyn played that — Vassar is a very different school. But while long open to discussion around gender, sexuality, and race, Vassar, like many elite institutions, still struggles with issues of social class. The importance of this struggle, in twenty-first-century America, goes way beyond easing culture shock and helping students fit in. It is about reconciling the traditions of excellence and exclusivity with the ideals of equity and diversity. It is about providing opportunity to the widest possible group of students. And it is about surviving as a first-rate educational institution in a rapidly changing demographic landscape, one in which Latinos, immigrants, urban students, and the children of the non-college-educated will form an ever-bigger share of the college applicant pool.

President Catharine Hill, an economist whose scholarship focuses on college access and affordability, knows this. And under her leadership, Vassar is taking action. In spring 2007 the trustees voted to return to “need-blind” admissions — meaning that a student’s ability to pay is no longer considered during the applicant vetting process. For ten years, starting in 1997, when financial aid costs were exploding and budgets were tight, Vassar had pursued a “need-aware” policy that resulted in the acceptance of some students because they could afford most or all tuition, at the expense of similarly able students who could not.

Then in March 2008, the trustees additionally moved to eliminate loans from the financial aid packages of students with family incomes below $60,000, converting them to grants. This makes Vassar one of only a handful of colleges with endowments below $1 billion to pledge to pursue a need-blind admissions policy, meet full need, and fulfill that need without loans for lower income families.

“The goal is to have a student body that is the most interesting, brightest, and most accomplished students — while being more representative,” Hill says. But there is more to it than that, she adds. “Higher education is a source of equal opportunity and social mobility; in the United States that’s been part of our commitment as a nation. We have a public mission to play a role there.”

About the same time that Hill arrived at Vassar in the fall of 2006, two seniors, Brielyn Smith and Lindsey (Lulu) Caruso, were reflecting on their experiences at the college and establishing a new student organization, the Class Issues Alliance (CIA). Smith and Caruso had been thinking about it since their sophomore year, when an intern at the counseling service did a survey of students whose parents had never been to college. Smith was from upstate New York, with a carpenter father and a mother who pursued her own higher education only after raising her children. Caruso was from Chalmette, Louisiana, where her non-college-educated parents run an appliance repair business. What Smith and Caruso had in common at Vassar was a sense of not quite belonging. When they formed the Class Issues Alliance, they had a membership of about 20 students who attended weekly meetings. In spring 2007, CIA organized a panel discussion with faculty members who also came from working-class backgrounds. One of them was English professor Michael Joyce, son of a steelworker and a homemaker in a big Irish Catholic family. He attended a demanding Jesuit high school in his native Buffalo and got high SAT scores (the Ivy League, he says, “was not in my imagination”), but nevertheless took eight years to finish his undergraduate education. He worked and took courses at a number of institutions before earning his B.A. from Buffalo’s Canisius College. “This country is absolutely split by class, but we never talk about it,” Joyce says. “Liberal-arts institutions of [Vassar’s] stature have to lead this dialogue.” President Hill’s leadership in this area is significant, he thinks. “It’s an important moment, whether or not it immediately changes the demographics of the student body.”

While she was provost of Williams College, Hill and Gordon C. Winston, a professor of economics there, did several important studies illuminating the demography and accessibility of higher education. First, they researched the income distribution of students during the academic year 2001–02 at 28 highly selective private colleges and universities that were in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE). They found that 70 percent came from families in the top 20 percent of the national income distribution, specifically those earning more than $91,700 a year. Just 10 percent of COFHE students came from the bottom 40 percent of income distribution, earning below $32,400 a year.

“When we first presented this work, people responded in two ways,” Hill says. “Some said, ‘Of course, these are selective institutions, and primary and secondary schools are in such bad shape that students from disadvantaged communities, by the time they get through high school, are not ready for [them].’ But other people would say, ‘Something else is going on that’s excluding these students.’” Hill put herself in the latter camp. Studying the student body at Williams from 1988 to 2001, she and her co-researchers found one possible explanation: while admissions were technically “need-blind,” the college asked those in the lowest income bracket to pay nearly 60 percent of their yearly income in tuition and fees. (After Williams substituted grants for loans, that percentage went down to 10 percent.)

For the next piece of their research, Hill and her colleagues used a comprehensive national database of SAT and ACT scores from 2003 that included data on the demographic characteristics of the test takers. What they found, Hill says, confirmed her suspicion that there were many more high-ability, low-income students in the U.S. than were making it into the selective private colleges. The data showed that the COFHE schools took a bigger proportion of the high-scoring students from high-income families than the national distribution, and a much lower proportion of the high scorers from the lower-income brackets.

“We found that there were 30 percent to 60 percent more talented low-income students doing well on these exams than were represented in the selective colleges’ and universities’ student bodies, depending on one’s definition of high ability,” Hill says. “We have to ask ourselves why, despite numerous steps along the way, there are so few students [at these colleges] from low-income groups.”

President Hill presenting research to students
President Hill presenting research to students

President Hill presents her research on affordability and access for
lower-income background college students to conference attendees.

Returning Vassar to a need-blind admissions policy was not an easy matter. Compared to many of its peer schools, including Williams, Vassar’s endowment, when considered in relation to the size of its student body, is much smaller: about $360,000 per student. (The ratio at Swarthmore, by comparison, is $1 million per student.) It also has a relatively higher percentage of students on financial aid than many of those same schools, hovering consistently around 55 percent. And Vassar has a history of reaching out to a wide pool of potential applicants: The Exploring Transfer program (ET), for example, brings community-college students to Vassar’s campus for a summer of rigorous academic study, serving as a potential springboard to four-year institutions for nearly 1,000 students since the mid-eighties. In the past 15 years, 44 Exploring Transfer students have transferred to Vassar itself; hundreds of others have gone on to enroll at other four-year colleges such as Yale, Columbia, Smith, and Middlebury.

Still, Vassar moved to the “need-aware” policy in 1997, when similar steps were taken by institutions like Brown, Trinity, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Carleton. “The financial aid budget escalated quickly in the mid-nineties, and we needed some control over the rate of growth,” says Dean of Admission and Financial Aid David Borus. But it did not touch all financial aid applicants, figuring in “near the end of the process.”

The policy saved some money, but it also sent the wrong message and skewed the admissions process itself, Hill says. Under the need-aware system, a less privileged student would be at a disadvantage when two comparable applications were considered. Hill believes it should actually be the other way around. “My worry is that if one student from a family making $40,000, who attends an inferior high school, looks, on paper, like another student who had more advantages, are they really identical? Maybe the one from the disadvantaged background is the more interesting of the two,” Hill says.

The move to need-blind adds about a half million dollars to the financial aid budget in its initial year, and the conversion from loans to grants another million. Over the next three years as need-blind admission affects all four classes, the projected costs will be closer to $2 million. With these two changes in policy, the college expects to pay $34 million in financial aid in 2008–09, about double the amount spent a decade ago and nearly a quarter of Vassar’s annual operating expenses. But the policy is necessary for the college to remain competitive with other elite institutions. Harvard, Stanford, and Yale have upped the ante considerably by essentially waiving tuition for students from the lowest income brackets, while Swarthmore, Haverford, Pomona, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, and others have adopted some version of the no-loan policy.

Vassar also has to consider the issue of demographics. Hill says all the data indicate that in 10 to 15 years, the pool of high-school students will be even more diverse than it is now—more immigrants, more Latinos, more students from urban areas and non-college-educated parents. “Whether we are need-blind or not, the pool of students from which we are recruiting is changing, and we need to be ready for that,” she says. “Making sure we have significant financial aid resources and a commitment to a diverse student body is incredibly important.”

“Vassar’s best estimate is that we would lose an additional 25 to 30 students each year to competitors if we did not adopt a no-loan/reduced-loan initiative — eventually between 100 and 120 students from all four classes, nearly five percent of Vassar’s current population,” says Davis-Van Atta. “Further, these students would be disproportionately from lower income ranges.”

Being accepted to competitive schools and getting financial aid sufficient to make it feasible to attend are, of course, just the first hurdles faced by students from low-income backgrounds. Staying in college, fitting in, and learning how to make use of new opportunities can be daunting. In order to look more closely at how Vassar supports lower-income and first-generation students who do enroll, Hill established a joint student-faculty Committee on Inclusion and Excellence to ask the question of whether all admitted students were taking advantage of the opportunities available to them at Vassar, such as Junior Year Abroad. Kiese Laymon, a professor of English and a member of the committee, says that students who know about, say, funds that are available to students to help them purchase appropriate clothing for job interviews, “often aren’t the students who are in the most dire need.” One of the committee’s first responsibilities, he says, “is developing a way to make these channels visible without stigmatizing students who might be strapped for cash.”

Students from Smith discuss with Vassar students
Students from Smith discuss with Vassar students

Students from the Smith Association of Class Activists
discuss their perspective with Vassar students.

Sociology professor Bill Hoynes, who teaches a course called “Class, Culture, and Power,” says that in general, “the ideology of the American dream has always made it more difficult to talk about class. The academic discourse of class in the U.S. has been impoverished, weak, and underdeveloped.” Hoynes says that in his courses, it has always been a powerful and challenging moment when students talk about their own experiences — but that it doesn’t happen nearly enough. In 15 years he has had perhaps 20 students who wanted to talk about their own class backgrounds and how it affected them both at college and when they went home. “They felt they were potentially impostors in college, even though they were bright and doing well academically. At home, people had questions and criticisms, and they were learning about things they had a hard time communicating with their friends and families about.” They felt, he says, like “they had one foot in both worlds, but not both feet in either.”

Students in the Class Issues Alliance, in the stories they tell about their own efforts to fit in — both at college and once they go back home — would seem to agree with Professor Hoynes. Lulu Caruso says she hardly ever spoke in class as a freshman. “It was not about me not being as smart, but [other students] were trained and sent to schools from day one to know how to ‘talk the talk.’” Kathleen Brady-Stepien, a 2008 graduate, says that as a community we all need to work at understanding class mobility. “When your working-class background encounters a liberal arts college, you will inevitably inhabit two worlds at once and quickly discover that education at a highly selective school is not always a magical journey to prosperity. How you deal with that is ultimately up to you, but hopefully the Class Issues Alliance will continue uniting first-generation/low-income/working-class background students in order to ease this transition.”

In March 2008, the Class Issues Alliance hosted the first annual Northeast Class Issues Conference, which brought together some 50 students from several schools, including Smith, the University of Southern Maine (USM), SUNY New Paltz, and Drew University. The keynote speaker was Professor Lydia Savage of USM, who cautioned students to be vigilant “about whether we are thinking about people in the same way in terms of their opportunity. Is your advisor doing you justice? Are there resources available that nobody is telling you about?”

At the conference, some Vassar faculty and staff spoke of their own backgrounds, including Associate Dean of the College Edward Pittman ’82, a Poughkeepsie native and the son and grandson of sharecroppers who migrated from the South. He came to Vassar after attending Dutchess County Community College. “The real change will come when the culture makes all students feel a part of the campus,” he says. “I know that from working with students of color for 18 years. It’s not just about bringing students here from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds, but about how we change the institution to fit everyone.”

President Hill spoke at the conference as well, engaging the group in a spirited discussion about Vassar’s commitment to diversity, ranging from the role of the SAT in admissions to the job prospects of liberal-arts graduates to patterns of social mobility. “It was really exciting to have such a great conversation with students about these issues,” she says, “and a reaffirmation of all that we’ve been doing to address them. This is so important for Vassar’s future, and for our students’ futures—and it’s just the right thing to do.”

By Dale Mezzacappa ’72

Mezzacappa is a journalist who has covered education for more than two decades, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a board member of the National Education Writers Association.

Vassar's new student group, the Vassar Association of Class Activists (renamed from Class Issues Alliance), is looking for alumnae/i who were students of a low-income, working-class, and/or first-generation college student background during their time at Vassar, as well as any alumnae/i who are interested in discussing class issues. For information or to become involved, contact vassarclassalliance@gmail.com.