Vassar president Catharine Bond Hill wants to make higher ed affordable for all

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Since becoming president of Vassar College in 2006, Catharine Bond Hill has been committed to ensuring that anyone who is accepted will be able to afford it, eliminating the primary barrier to attending a selective school for low- and middle-income students. Under her initiative, Vassar has adopted a need-blind admission policy, which means that applicants are considered strictly on their academic and extracurricular qualifications. If they attend, the college commits to meeting the student’s full financial need through aid for all four years.

According to a recent Vassar report, its 2,450 students came from throughout the US and 60 other countries. Fifty-eight percent of its students received financial aid: a huge help in making the combined annual tuition, room & board, and fees of $61,140 affordable and earning Vassar a number-one rating for Best Financial Aid by The Princeton Review. In 2013, the college began accepting groups of veterans into each freshmen class in another initiative aimed toward diversifying the student body.

The challenge of making higher education more accessible to low-income students has long been an area of study for Hill, a noted economist who has written several publications on the topic and authored opinion pieces in the national media. Hill, who prior to her tenure at Vassar served as the provost of Williams College, taught Economics at Williams and spent three years in the 1990s with her family in Zambia, where she headed the Harvard Institute for International Development’s Project on Macroeconomic Reform. She earned a BA at Williams, got BA and MA degrees at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and holds a PhD in economics from Yale University.

Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently spoke to Hill.


What keeps you up at night? What challenges facing this country worry you the most?

I’m really worried that we are not getting our higher education system through to a larger population. Who gets through depends on the family’s income and your race. That suggests one of our key principles of equal opportunity, that anyone can make it, is becoming a myth. We need to make a real push with higher education and make it available to more of the population.


Are you concerned about the state of public education in this country in general?

My expertise is this level of education. However, we obviously can’t do what we do unless K-through-12 is functioning well. It’s challenging.

I do worry about the increasing economic segregation in the US. So much of education is supported by local property taxes, which is not creating a level playing field for kids. All the evidence shows that it’s incredibly important to start young.


The high cost of a college education, particularly at a prestigious school like Vassar, is one of the major challenges facing young people today. How was Vassar able to move to a need-blind admission policy?

We made a big commitment in 2007 that a diverse student body was an important objective. We could be spending every single dollar on something else, but we made the decision. What allows us to be in the number-one position is that we decided to allocate resources for that initiative.

It’s not the easiest thing to do. You have to talk to the community about your objectives. If you look, you can find places where cuts can be made. For example, we used to have a post office on campus, so faculty and staff could mail packages. Somebody was retiring, so it was a good moment to get rid of it. Other tradeoffs were harder to make.


What is your endowment?

Somewhere over $900 million. We are completing a wonderful new 80,000 square-foot science facility, as well as making extensive renovations on three other science buildings.


Has having a more diverse student body created new challenges?

We’re recruiting students from all economic brackets, from the very wealthy to the very bottom of the economic sector. Each wants different things, and since we want students coming from all brackets, we have to balance those concerns.


What is the breakdown?

About 23 percent of our students are Pell Grant recipients, which means they’re coming from an income level of $50,000 or less. More than 70 students in each entering class are first-generation college students, the first in their families to attend college. About 12 percent are students who are called international; of that amount, six to seven percent have a foreign passport.


An increasing percentage of college students in the US are foreigners, which has made many universities much more competitive. What’s your position on soliciting a more international pool of students?

Some work has been done on this topic. It’s definitely the case that more international students are coming to the US to go to school. Some colleges encourage this because they want a more international perspective for the student body. They want to go beyond borders and think understanding the world from a global perspective is important. Many schools in the US are getting international students because they can pay full rate. There’s concern that as the rate of international students goes up, it will freeze out US students. Here at Vassar, 12 percent feels about right in terms of introducing international students into the student body. We don’t treat them as a source of revenue.


What other factors contribute to the intensely competitive admissions situation at many schools?

The higher education market is much more nationally competitive. A really smart kid from the Midwest might have looked to a private college in his or her state or a state college in the past, but now, partly due to the reduction in costs to learn about other schools, kids are submitting many more applications all over the place.


Poorer kids generally don’t have the same educational advantages as their wealthier counterparts, which I assume would make acceptance into a selective school like Vassar unlikely unless there was a different standard.

Some of my early research work looked at this issue, comparing how many high-ability low-income kids there were at private nonprofit selective schools and how many were out there in the world. In our study, only about ten percent of students at 30 schools from the private nonprofit sector came from the bottom-40-percent income group. Why so low? Because those families were living in places with bad schools and bad daycare.

Our next work was to take SAT data and figure out how many talented low-income kids were out there. We didn’t have all the information, but we had SAT data, and that’s probably being conservative, since kids might do better than their SAT test scores. We should have had ten percent, but we found there were 13 to 16 percent. That meant we could increase our share of talented low- income kids without changing admission credentials.

The trick was to figure out: Were they not in our pool, or were we not admitting them? It’s a little bit of all that. You have to admit them, but you don’t have to give up much of anything to do this. There are probably 150 or so of these private nonprofit colleges, and only about 40 or 50 of them don’t take need-based kids.


So moving to a need-blind admission policy helped even the playing field?

We feel pretty feel good where are now. We always are making tradeoffs. Fifty-eight percent of our students are getting financial aid, and if that number jumped higher, we’d have to make more sacrifices. It’s great the economy is recovering. That has helped us.


Why has the cost of a college education increased so much?

Costs are going up because there’s so much demand for higher education. The labor market is rewarding people with higher education credentials. We have one of the most skill-intensive industries in the nation, and the compensation of our faculty and staff in the labor market has gone up.

What’s driving up the costs is that we haven’t benefited from the technical progress other industries have. We don’t know how to teach a seminar for 20 students without lowering the quality. It’s called Baumol’s Cost Disease. A classic example is a string quartet. If you cut the number of instruments in half or have them play twice as fast, you could cut the cost, but you wouldn’t be able to maintain quality.

Private nonprofits account for only 15 percent of students; most are educated in the public sector, including community colleges. The prices have gone up more rapidly in the public sector than in others, because states have pulled back in their support. The publics have to maintain their costs, and it’s not clear what’s going to happen to quality.

Wall Street has helped endowments, but some schools have pulled back on Wall Street. However, you’re starting to see more commitment to financial aid, because the finances are better and there’s a lot of discussion from the White House encouraging a commitment to universal education.

At the publics, the price has gone up, but it hasn’t been matched by need-based financial aid, so for many families the cost has gone up.


You hear about the horrific amount of student debt burdening many young people, which is crimping their opportunities.

I really worry that all this rhetoric around loan burdening is misleading. The press tends to report outlier stories instead of actual data. For those who earned a BA in 2011 or 2012, the average debt was $26,000. That’s more than justified by the increased earnings from getting a BA. Some students make bad decisions, but the average debt is $26,000, and you can get that back very quickly. This debt is the investment of a lifetime.


There’s an argument that perhaps vocational school would be a better option for some students.

My worry with vocational school is the labor market is changing so incredibly quickly that any one particular skill could conceivably be obsolete in five to eight years. It used to be if you took a job, you did it for 30 years; but that’s no longer the case. We don’t even know what the jobs will be like in ten years. So it’s important that people get general critical reasoning and writing/qualitative skills, which allow them to be nimble in the labor market.

There’s room for us to do a little bit of everything in terms of getting people skills. There’s room in the market for more apprenticeships and technical training. But it shouldn’t be too specific, or that person has nothing when the technology changes.


Has technology changed college education, and has this been a good thing?

Technology continues to evolve, and it’s allowed us to do so many things so much better than 30 years ago. When I was in school, we didn’t even have word processing. There was no way I could write a second draft of my paper after typing it at 2 a.m. But our students can edit and rewrite continually, and I think that’s allowed work that couldn’t have happened before.

I’m an economist, and when I studied econometrics in college, it was with paper and pencil. Now our students in undergraduate and grad school can analyze huge data sets and can see the value of these quantitative tools, instead of just studying them in the abstract. On the creative side, they have the ability to create film, musical compositions…what students can accomplish given the technology has eliminated some boundaries that existed before. It helps us do our job better.

The big question is, will it help us address this cost issue? If we could have some technological advancement that would deliver a quality education at less cost, we could educate more people.


Haven’t online college courses done this?

I’m a pretty disciplined person, but it’s really hard to just sit at a computer all day. You can’t substitute the personal interaction you get on campus with the faculty and your peers. There will be places in the curriculum where online capabilities will help us and make sense. A lot of schools are experimenting with this.


Have you noticed any change in the current generation of students?

I’ve taught Economics every other year, and I’ve noticed there is this tendency for students to multitask. But we encourage them to focus on one thing, and they are receptive to that on campus. They haven’t lost the ability to deeply engage. They are also always communicating and connecting. I’m doing that too.


Vassar began accepting small groups of veterans as freshmen in a new program you introduced in partnership with the Posse Foundation in 2013. Have you started a trend?

So far two schools, Wesleyan and Dartmouth, have followed us into the program. Many people go into the military for economic reasons. Part of the Posse Foundation’s philosophy is that a cohort is needed so that the veterans can support each other, and we agree with this. We’re hoping to spread the program to ten schools.


Where will you be ten years from now?

I am sure I will stay in the world of higher education, still thinking about the economic challenges. While there is a huge amount of work being done on this, we have not solved the problem, and I suspect in ten years we’ll still be working on it.

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