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Vassar College Recognized for Support of Low-Income Students

Vassar College has ramped up its outreach efforts to local school districts and increased financial aid to provide more opportunities for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the selective, liberal arts institution. As a result, the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., college was recognized by The New York Times for its record in enrolling and graduating low-income students. Now, the colllege has won additional financial support for that work through a $1 million prize from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

This week, Vassar received the inaugural Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for its efforts to expand access and support to disadvantaged students, awarded by the scholarship organization based in Landsdowne, Va.. The money will be used to further programs for low-income students at Vassar, according to its president Catharine Hill. (The foundation also supports Education Week's coverage of the experiences of high-achieving, low-income students.)

About 23 percent of Vassar's freshmen receive federal Pell grants, up from 12 percent in 2007, according to The Times' College Access Index. Students who receive the federal aid typically come from families with an annual household income of $30,000 or less.

Nearly 60 percent of current Vassar students receive some scholarship aid and the college's financial aid budget has more than doubled to from $27 million to $58 million since 2006 when Hill became president of the institution. The college has also been intentionally about increasing acceptance of "first generation" college students, with 70 or more in each freshman class since 2011-2012.  

(The school has a student enrollment of about 2,500)

Vassar's Urban Education Initiative, has coordinated programs between the college and local K-12 schools for more than a decade and recently expanded to include students from additional districts. There is a middle school tutoriing program, outreach to students who are English-language learners, and a college exploration program in the high schools where Vassar students serve as mentors. The initiative aims to help underrepresented groups prepare for college admittance and success.

"We want to encourage colleges all around the country to take the same kind of initiatives that Vassar did," said Harold Levy, president of the foundation in a video on the prize. "As colleges focus more and more on this, they do important things to better education, ultimately to better the economy and the country as a whole,"

Research has shown that college enrollment is closely tied to students' family income. While 73 percent of students from high-income, low-minority, suburban schools enrolled in college right after high school graduation, the college-enrollment rate at low-income schools ranges from 47 percent to 58 percent, according to a recent National Student Clearinghouse report.

Vassar joins other schools such as the University of California in Riverside (profiled in a recent report by the Center for American Progress) that are being intentional about helping expand access and support programs for low-income students.

"Almost all of our students are coming into a community at Vassar more diverse than where they grew up," said Hill in the video. "Getting to meet and go to class and live with people with different viewpoints. We think that's a great way to learn."

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