Vassar Today

Vassar's $1 Million Prize to Support High-Performing Low-Income Students

By Jeff Kosmacher

This spring, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced the inaugural Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, which comes with a $1 million award. It’s the largest award in the nation to recognize a college that is making strides in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to graduation. Vassar was named the first recipient.

The no-strings-attached award recognizes an institution’s accomplishments in enrollment, financial aid, academics, and student support services.

“We need to find solutions to the issue of a lack of socioeconomic diversity on our competitive college campuses, and to stop wasting the talent and potential of high-ability students who could be making great contributions to this country if only they were afforded the opportunities of their wealthier peers,” says Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy. “We hope this prize will encourage other institutions to follow Vassar’s strong leadership in creating college access and success initiatives.”

According to President Catharine Hill, Vassar will apply the Cooke Prize to programs for lower-income students, first-generation students, and undocumented students, or “DREAMers.” Specifically, this will include increased support to the college’s Transitions program, greater support for students who can’t afford to accept unpaid summer internships, and increased financial aid for undocumented students, whose status precludes eligibility for government support.

“This is an extraordinary prize and vote of confidence for Vassar’s commitment to affordability and accessibility for all qualified students,” says Hill. “Equally important is the larger statement the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation makes with this new prize, about the need to ensure equal opportunity in U.S. higher education.”

Over the last several years, Vassar has become a much more socioeconomically diverse college, prioritizing a commitment of funds to its strictly need-based financial aid budget. As a result, the percentage of students enrolled at Vassar who are eligible for federal Pell grants has risen by 11 percentage points since 2008—more than any other college ranked “most competitive” by Barron’s Profile of American Colleges.

In this period when the academic qualifications of Vassar students have been stronger than ever, the college’s financial aid budget has more than doubled to over $60 million, with approximately 60 percent of current students receiving some scholarship aid. In the 2014–2015 academic year, nearly 25 percent of Vassar’s first-year students were eligible for a Pell grant, which is available to students whose annual family income is $40,000 or less (slightly more for families with more than one child in college). Vassar has also steadily increased its enrollment of first-generation students, with 70 or more in each Vassar first-year class since the 2011–2012 academic year.

“Currently in the U.S. the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree depends to a large extent on a person’s family income and race,” says President Hill, a higher-education economist. “This must change for our country to live up to its principles of social advancement for all. Selective colleges and universities with large endowments must do their part by committing significantly more resources to need-based financial aid.”