By demonstrating a school-wide commitment to attracting and graduating high-ability, low-income students Vassar College — a private, coeducational liberal arts college located in Poughkeepsie, New York — has earned the inaugural $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is the largest award in the nation recognizing a college making strides in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to successful graduation.

Vassar, under the leadership of President Catharine Hill, has been a leader among America’s selective colleges in its commitment to attracting a more economically diverse student body.

Since taking the helm in 2006 Hill has led Vassar’s transformation into a far more socioeconomically diverse college campus, prioritizing a commitment of funds to its strictly need-based financial aid budget. As a result the percentage of students enrolled at Vassar who are eligible for a federal Pell grant has risen by 11 percentage points since 2008—more than any other college ranked “most competitive” by Barron’s Profile of American Colleges.

In this period when the academic qualifications of Vassar students has been stronger than ever, the college’s financial aid budget has more than doubled to over $60 million, with approximately 60 percent of current Vassar students receiving some scholarship aid. Nearly 25 percent of Vassar’s current first-year students are eligible for a Pell grant, which is available to students whose annual family income is $40,000 or less (slightly more for families with more than one child in college). Vassar has also steadily increased its enrollment of “first generation” students, with 70 or more in each Vassar first-year class since the 2011-2012 academic year.

After taking scholarships into account, the average annual cost of attending Vassar for lower-income students is about $6,000. Students cover much of that cost through campus jobs and loans.

The no-strings-attached $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence recognizes an institution’s accomplishments in enrollment, financial aid, academics and student support services.

“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 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy. “We hope this prize will encourage other institutions to follow Vassar’s strong leadership in creating college access and success initiatives.”

According to Vassar President Catharine Hill, the college will apply the Cooke Prize to programs for lower-income students, “first generation” students (the first in their family to attend college), and undocumented students, so-called “DREAMers.” This will include increased support to the college’s “Transitions” pre-orientation program for first-year students, as well as greater support for summer internships so that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds can benefit from these valuable experiences.

“This is an extraordinary prize and vote of confidence for Vassar’s commitment to affordability and accessibility for all qualified students,” said Hill. “Equally important is the larger statement the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation makes with this new prize, about the need to ensure equal opportunity in U.S. higher education.”

Hill, a higher education economist, added, "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. 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.  Government incentives to do so would help, but we don't need to wait for government policy changes.”