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Vassar College President On Keeping Higher Ed Affordable11:09

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The president of Vassar College, Catharine Bond Hill, studied education affordability as an academic before getting a chance to do something about as provost at Williams College and then as president of Vassar.

As part of Here & Now's series on student loan debt, Hill tells host Jeremy Hobson that it's impossible to separate the rising cost of higher education from broader economic trends like income inequality.

Interview Highlights: Catharine Bond Hill

Do you think that college is too expensive?

“In the United States, there are colleges you can go to at a variety of different price points, so I’ll talk primarily about the selective private nonprofits, which Vassar is an example of, and no, I think we’re an incredibly good investment. We’re expensive and yet it leads to higher earnings for students and lots of interesting job choices when they graduate. So we’re expensive but worth it.”

On the $63,000 that it cost to attend Vassar for one year

“First of all, I think it’s really important to recognize that 60 percent of our students don’t pay that. About 40 percent of our students do pay the full sticker price, but 60 percent don’t. In fact, if you come from a low-income family, say earning less than $30,000 a year, your cost to attend Vassar will be about $4,000. And if you earn up to about $48,000, that net price might go up to about $5,000. Even for families who are earning close to $100,000, we’re only asking them to pay about a third of that. So I think it’s incredibly important that there’s significant need-based financial aid at our kinds of schools.”

Why has the cost of college gone up so much over the years?

“I think it’s important to look at different kinds of institutions because the cost increase will be different. But at Vassar, about two-thirds of our expenses are for compensation for people that work here, and higher education is one of the most skilled, intensive industries in the country. I think some of the others are financial services, legal services, dental services, health care areas. And in the United States right now, over the last 40 years, there’s been a big increase in income inequality and part of that is because increased returns to skilled labor. So our major input has gone up and is more expensive because of what’s been happening to income inequality in the United States. Now, in some sectors you can deal with that if you can figure out how to do what you’re doing with fewer people. We haven’t figured out how to do that in higher education.”

Is there an end to the rising costs of college in sight?

“I think going back to this idea of increasing income inequality in America, which has been happening for the last 40 years. That’s partly from this return to skilled labor, but it’s resulted from other things as well. But partly as a result of that, some of the families that are coming to us really want certain things for their kids when they go on to college. So I think our costs are being driven up partly from the rising income inequality in America and the demand from those high-income families for the kinds of things they want for their students when they go on to college. So I would say that if we as a nation can address rising income inequality that things will change in higher education. It’s very difficult to ask higher education to address these issues on their own when we face what’s going on across the broad economy.”


  • Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, where she is also a professor of economics. Before coming to Vassar in 2006, she was provost for seven years at Williams College, where she had chief academic and financial officer responsibilities.

This segment aired on November 10, 2015.

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