Vassar College has proven it is possible to substantially increase the portion of low-income students on a selective campus. And the college did it right through the Great Recession, committing to its income diversity model at a time when finding extra money for financial aid was especially difficult.
The college’s success with low-income students recently earned it the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s inaugural $1 million no-strings-attached award.
Vassar President Catharine Bond Hill said increasing the financial aid funding available to students required a number of hard decisions, including shrinking the staff. With two-thirds of the budget consumed by employee compensation, Hill said Vassar had no choice but to cut there. While the campus used to have its own post office, and employees to staff it, Vassar now relies on the local post office. Where it used to allow courses to run with only a handful of students, the college now requires minimums, reducing the costs in faculty compensation of its entire course catalog.
Every person working at Vassar was adding value, Hill told gathered journalists at the Education Writers Association National Seminar Wednesday. Administrators had to make hard decisions in their commitment to allocating more money to financial aid. As schools respond to increasing pressure to increase accessibility to low-income students, Hill cautioned, they will need to prepare for this reality.
“Every dollar you spend on financial aid, you don’t have to spend on something else,” Hill said.
Hill’s own work as an economist explores higher education affordability and access. She discussed the rising cost of higher education Wednesday, pointing to the increasing value, across industries, of skilled labor. Higher education positions mark some of the most skilled jobs in the economy, but unlike other industries that have been able to take advantage of technological progress to find efficiencies and reduce costs outside of compensation, higher education largely has not. At least not while maintaining quality, Hill said.
As costs go up and funding declines, students end up seeing the effects in the net price of their degrees. Funding has fallen much more dramatically than costs have risen in recent years, and several states are facing budget proposals with even more significant cuts to higher education.
Hill argues income inequality actually exacerbates the money problems in higher ed. Institutions compete for students who can pay the full sticker price for their education but they spend more in two areas to win their enrollment. First, they pay for the services this type of student advocates for — including, Hill said dryly, single rooms, great food in the dining halls, smaller classes, career services, and organic lawn care. This increases the per-student cost of higher education, forcing colleges and universities to pay a second time, on the financial aid side, to close the gap between what low-income students can pay and what the sticker price becomes.
“Part of the solution is recognizing that it has to be a collective decision-making to somehow pull back and reallocate resources to the things that we think are core to our educational mission,” Hill said. Otherwise, students who can afford to will simply abandon one institution for another that offers more amenities.
So far, Vassar has reached for the “low-hanging fruit” in diversifying its admissions, going after very high-performing students from low-income backgrounds. These students don’t require remediation or other costly academic support. At the very least, it’s time for other elite institutions to do the same.
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