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College tour impressions: Vassar

The second destination on our college tour was one of just the couple of liberal arts colleges on Becky’s list.

I have a feeling that calling your school a “liberal arts college” these days has to do more with pretense than with a true distinction from a “university”. Yes, engineering is normally not an option to major in, but I know of at least one such college that does offer that “unique” opportunity nowadays (coincidentally, we intend to visit that school as well, even though we could not care less about an engineering degree, no offense to any of my readers holding one). Yes, a graduate school is normally not a division of a liberal arts college, but it obviously makes little difference to a prospective undergrad, even when it is span as “more research opportunities for undergraduates”. Yes, liberal arts colleges are usually smaller and more intimate, but when you talk about a few thousand students, I don’t know if three thousand would feel considerably more intimate than, say, five thousand at an institution calling itself a “university”.

Anyway, with only Ivy League universities as points of reference up to this moment, Vassar did leave a different impression.

The campus is awfully pretty, park-like, enclosing a couple of lakes and streams, with buildings sitting a fair distance away from each other. There is a bit of a jumble of architectural styles, including some later-day designs that I could do without, but overall it is very pleasing.

Some college areas are located in different parts of the surrounding town, but the main campus is an enclosure abutting, rather than integrated with, a picturesque town strip. Poughkeepsie, NY, is a small town, and the feel of the area is fairly rural, although definitely not “in the middle of nowhere”. That impression was helped by the town fair being held on the day of our visit, with a nearby main street closed for vehicular traffic and throngs of people mulling about. The first café that we randomly went in for breakfast did little to dispel that positive impression, too; busy but efficient, good ambiance, good food, a mix of locals and visitors, one of those kinds of eateries that instantly make you feel good about the place you’re in. (And on a completely inconsequential note, the road along the campus leading into the “town centre” has no less than three roundabouts, which for all my erstwhile lamentations about driving in England elicit strangely nostalgic emotions in us nowadays.)

While visual stimulants were overwhelmingly positive, the other components of our visit did ok.

The college offers all of the areas of study that Becky is after, and there is enough of flexibility in program composition to make studies fun (including nearly total absence of required/core studies beyond three freshman requirements, one of which Becky can already easily satisfy without taking any courses – foreign language proficiency). I wish I had such flexibility when I was in college. A smaller school is a smaller school, however, – the number of available classes and majors may sound impressive in the absolute sense, but it loses in comparison with bigger institutions. (It is a bit illogical to say that a 1,000 courses on offer is “lacking” when the degree requires you to select just 35 of them; and yet, given all that flexibility in designing your degree program, somehow the fact that some bigger college offers 2,000 courses makes the lower number seem inadequate…)

Facilities, from what we’ve seen, are satisfactory but hardly outstanding. Given that neither the tour nor the info session, both seriously slanted towards advertisement, focused much on facilities, I conclude that those are not a bragging point for the institution.

Which makes its price tag additionally galling. Vassar costs more than Yale. I have already come to accept the fact that there is no true cost differentiation when it comes to private schools – a couple-of-grand difference above $50K/yr can hardly be considered a significant factor – and I understand the economics well enough to recognize why the education sticker prices are what they are nowadays, but it just feels wrong that the 14th-ranked “national liberal arts college” costs more than the 3rd-ranked “national university”, where the latter clearly offers superior experience and superior opportunities.

Of course, as many other upper-tier schools, Vassar is need-blind or need-neutral or whatever the correct term is. They promise to accept you without any consideration for your ability to pay and then work with you to cover the difference between what you are able to pay and the yearly cost by means of a customized financial aid package. The pitch to low-income families is that if you are accepted, you may not have to pay anything out of pocket, based on the formula for the family contribution that the school uses. The pitch to middle-class prospective students… does not exist really, who knows what their formula is going to say we should pay out of pocket?…

But I digress. Financial considerations will be roughly the same at any school, as merit-based scholarships are giving way to completely need-based financial aid at many institutions around the country.

The girl who led our tour group awed us with her ability to talk while constantly walking backwards, but while she was personable and well-spoken, she very clearly talked from an advertising script and answered every question with an enthusiastic example of how good she was having it at the school that stretched credibility. For instance, she appeared on the very previous night as having gone to a soccer game, a comedy show, a dance with an hour-long wait to get in, and a play. I realize that her goal was to illustrate the variety of stuff to do on campus beyond studying, but she only succeeded in making me alternately admire her ability to be in so many places at once or question whether any, you know, studying was part of her daily schedule at all.

The admission officer who held the info session had a few thoughtful insights interspersed with light comedy, but then quickly deteriorated in my eyes as he started answering questions. Many of those were along the lines of “Can you please talk about such and such program?” and his answer to every single one of them started with “Oh, yes, it is one of our most popular programs. It’s great! Students love it!” I counted close to a dozen “most popular” programs, of which only one or two were on the list of most popular majors that he himself gave the audience at the beginning.

Oh well, if those were the only negative impressions I had from our visit, I must conclude that the place looks rather attractive on balance. Becky liked it, with a qualifier that she liked Yale better. The programs, though, look pretty good, and she could see herself living and studying on a pretty campus such as Vassar’s. I guess we’re applying.

The price tag will be a separate conversation. If she is accepted, of course.


  1. John the Scientist

    Here’s the deal on the price tag. Yale can set whatever price it wants, but sets it at a certain level so it does not become what its detractors accuse it to be – a playground only for the rich. Vassar knows it’s a safety school for kids who just miss the cutoff in the Ivy League for whatever reason. With their first choice down the drain, those Ivy-wannabes, or at least their parents, will now pay anything to keep their kids out of a State school. (With good reason. I taught at a very good state school and it still sucked comapred to the private school I attended. Quality of competition matters as much or more than quality of instructors). Schools like Vassar know in that particular market their cache is quite high, and charge accordingly. It’s a lot like how the price of generators went way up a few days into the 10 day power outage after Irene.

    “Research opportunity” is a horse*$%@ marketing tool. As an undergrad you won’t be able to get much research done if you are taking a decent class load (which you should be – no other time of your life wiull allow you broader your knowledge base as undergrad will), and in the summers you can pick wherever you want to go to do research for a summer job(including government labs)if you are good enough. IMNSHO, most – not all, but most – of the best researchers are freaking lousy teachers, so going to a high powered research institution should not be the draw that it seems to be with some parents.

    Speaking as a former National Merit scholar and a parent, you do not know how livid the demise of merit-based scholarships makes me. You just do not know.

  2. Dr. Phil

    Actually undergraduate research in the sciences is becoming big — massively changed since I was in college 35 years ago and it’s been increasing since I had an REU student at Hope College in the summer of 1997.

    Partly the difference between an LAC and a university is feel. Since many colleges don’t have grad students, faculty have to see more students — I’ve heard students talk about not seeing a real prof at a major university for the first two years. But the big uni has a major Division I professional football team, so your mileage will vary. (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  3. Ilya

    Thanks for the insights, gentlemen! I’m going to admit that neither research nor football are determining factors in our case…

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