As part of the foundation's Excellence Gap initiative, starting this year, the annual $1 million prize will recognize a college that excels in enrolling low-income students and supporting them through graduation. Since 2006, Vassar president Catharine Hill has led the liberal arts college's transformation into a more socioeconomically diverse institution, doubling its need-based financial aid budget to more than $60 million and increasing the percentage of students who are eligible for a federal Pell grant by 11 percentage points since 2008 — more than any other college ranked "most competitive" by Barron's Profile of American Colleges. Vassar also has steadily increased its enrollment of first-generation college students. Indeed, according to a 2014 New York Times analysis that influenced the Cooke Foundation's decision, Vassar has done more than any other college with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent to enroll low-income students and give them substantial scholarships.
The school will use the no-strings-attached $1 million prize to boost scholarships for low-income students, first-generation students, and undocumented students, and increase support for a pre-orientation program for first-year students and summer internships.
"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," said Hill, a higher education economist who called attention to the lack of socioeconomic diversity on college campuses before she took the helm at Vassar. "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."
Research has shown that socioeconomically disadvantaged students — who often lack connections and a family safety net — benefit more from attending selective colleges than other students. While many elite four-year institutions have worked to diversify their student bodies in terms of geography, religion, and race/ethnicity, the Times notes,many continue to struggle with socioeconomic diversity.
"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," said JKCF executive director Harold O. Levy, himself a first-generation college student and former chancellor of the New York City school system. "We hope this prize will encourage other institutions to follow Vassar's strong leadership in creating college access and success initiatives."