Leadership & Governance

Vassar College's President: 'Locating Low-Income Students Is Not the Hurdle'

Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar College

November 05, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


LIZ MCMILLEN: Welcome. I'm here with the president of Vassar College, Catharine Hill.

CATHARINE BOND HILL: I'm delighted to be here.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Absolutely.


LIZ MCMILLEN: So Vassar has been in the news quite a bit recently for being able to enroll more low-income students. And I understand that you made some changes a few years ago—2007, you introduced the blind admissions—I should say reintroduced—and you substituted grants for loans. What did it take to make all of that happen?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: It was really a decision that it was consistent with our mission that we wanted to recruit a diverse student body. And so it was a combination of making the commitment to spend the money on financial aid and also go out and locate students who we thought would be good fits for Vassar.

LIZ MCMILLEN: So what are the elements in trying to create a culture on campus to support that?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: Well, I think one of the really important things is that we have these institutions that have already huge support mechanisms. We are schools that have small classes, great faculty who are committed to teaching. We have a wonderful library with support people there. We have a writing center. We have a Q-Center for quantitative skills. We have a counseling center.

So we already have huge amounts of support for our students. And it makes it a great place for lower-income students to come because they're going to have access to those services. And then, on top of that, we do have special programs to help with lower-income kids who are coming to college.

LIZ MCMILLEN: You mentioned identifying high-school students. What have you done in that area?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: One, I think it was incredibly important to get the message out that Vassar was accessible. And if you could get in, we would come up with the financial aid to make it possible for you to come. And that we wouldn't take your financial need into account. So that helped a lot. And we saw our applications grow quite a bit, in response to that.

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But then we've also partnered with a variety of pipeline programs to help us locate kids. So, QuestBridge is one. There's another program in the Los Angeles area that we've had a lot of luck with lately, called College Match. We have 12 students in the freshman class through that program, which is great.

LIZ MCMILLEN: And lots of colleges, now, realize that this is a serious priority. And there is a lot of talk about this. But few colleges are doing what you've done. What are the barriers that you think are happening on campuses?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: I think the main constraint, which isn't really getting as much attention as it should be getting, is that you have to allocate the resources to financial aid. And every time you allocate $1 to financial aid, it's not going to something else. So I worry about all this talk about locating them, that somehow that's the hurdle. That's not the hurdle. The hurdle is committing the resources to financial aid.

There are only about 40 or so schools that are need-blind and meet full need. And if you're not one of those schools, you've already got talented low-income kids in your applicant pool. And you're either not admitting them because of their need. Or you're admitting them but not giving them adequate financial aid to make it possible for them to attend or to succeed.

LIZ MCMILLEN: You've written in the past that if you're not making a commitment to financial aid, you're basically getting lots of low-income students to apply and then rejecting them. So where do you find the resources for financial aid? Is it a question of fund raising and philanthropy?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: I think it's a little bit of everything. I think you try to raise additional resources for it. On the margin, you can reallocate resources that you're spending on other things to financial aid. That's always a tension because you want to allocate every single dollar that you allocate to the highest priorities. But we spend money on lots of really important things. And you just have to figure out that trade-off.

LIZ MCMILLEN: What were some of the difficult choices you had to make?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: We looked around to find some things that were the easier things to do. We closed a campus post office. We have a post office in our little neighborhood. Sometimes it's irritating when I can't buy stamps downstairs, and I have to walk to town to do it or remember to do that on the weekend.

But we made harder decisions about reducing staffing as well. And that was partly looking at where we were allocating resources and feeling that we had probably hired more people during boom times than we probably should have. That was not the easiest thing to change.

LIZ MCMILLEN: And it sounds as though you've spent a good deal of your professional career as an economist, thinking about many of these issues in higher education. So you have both a research and, now, a professional presidential interest in this. Where does this interest come from? How did it develop?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: Well, it actually came—I started my life as a development economist, doing work on Africa. And when I got into administration at Williams College, part of my responsibility was admissions and financial aid. And so I shifted my research toward these issues and started doing work on low-income access and pricing and affordability, and have spent the last 15 years focused on those issues.

LIZ MCMILLEN: So Williams College has spawned a number of higher-education leaders. What is that all about?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: Well, I think a lot of it goes to the existence of a very strong economics department and the leadership of someone named Gordon Winston, who recently passed away. I have done a memorial for him at the Forum on the Future of Higher Education. And one of the things that I recommended people to do was to go back and look at the working papers that came out of the project that he was really responsible for. And there are about, almost 80 papers—all of which are on the key issues in American higher education. Quite a legacy, in fact.

LIZ MCMILLEN: And not to get ahead of things, but someday when you are no longer president of Vassar, how do you imagine this commitment continuing at the college when the prime mover and advocate for this is no longer there?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: Well, I do think it's actually an institutional commitment. Vassar's been committed to making this wonderful education available to people for whom it's not been available before. It was founded for women who couldn't, at that time, go to Yale or Amherst or other men's colleges.

But I'm also hopeful that, at the national level, we will figure out a way to create incentives for higher-education institutions to really live up to this commitment to low-income access. We get significant resources through the federal government, not just through its grant and loan programs, but through advantageous tax treatment—for example, charitable giving. Part of the reason that the public sector does that is because we are the means of access to equal opportunity and social mobility. And I think we need to live up to that.

LIZ MCMILLEN: What are some of the other incentives that you'd like to see happening more broadly so that institutions could do this in a more pervasive way?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: I would like to see federal policy makers create the incentives for us to—on the margin—allocate those resources to financial aid and affordability and low-income access, which now we're being asked to do on our own. And there's no reason that we can't be given more incentives to make those decisions in that direction.

LIZ MCMILLEN: And what lessons do you have for other presidents who want to make low-income students a priority of their administration? What sort of advice would you have?

CATHARINE BOND HILL: I think you can do it. The students are out there. And I think the students that are getting through K through 12, college-ready, deserve a shot at coming to our kinds of schools. And so I think they should live up to that commitment. And then make sure they get through.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Great. Well, thank you for being here today.

CATHARINE BOND HILL: Thank you. Delighted. It's fun.

LIZ MCMILLEN: Thanks very much.