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August 06, 2017

Students study in Vassar's Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

* This story originally aired on WGBH News on May 27, 2016.

In 2007, just months before the Great Recession, Vassar College made a commitment: The prestigious liberal arts college, nestled in the beautiful Hudson River Valley, would aggressively recruit, finance, and graduate a lot more poor kids.

"When I got here, it didn't look like we were doing all that well in that area," said Vassar President Cappy Hill. 

While the college’s $900 million endowment took major hits during the Recession, Vassar managed to double the amount of money it gives to financial aid each year - from $30 million in 2007 to $60 million today.

That commitment, Hill says, doesn't come without challenges.

Every dollar the school spends on need-based financial aid, it can’t spend on things that many high-income families have come to demand from small, private colleges, including turf fields, great food in the dining hall and, Hill adds, organic lawn care.

With more of the college's money cultivating poor students instead of organic grass, the college's landscape has changed - a lot.

Today, 25 percent of Vassar students are low income, up from just 11 percent before the markets tanked. By comparison, about 3 percent of students at our country's most selective colleges are low-income, in part, because $50,000 and $60,000 sticker prices create a certain psychological barrier.

Vassar senior Colleen O'Connell has been working in the Dean of Student office to pay for her tuition. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

"That was probably the scariest thing for me,” said Colleen O'Connell, a Vassar senior originally from Maywood, New Jersey.

O’Connell did well in high school and was recruited by Vassar.

"I applied early decision and I knew that if the financial aid wasn't gonna be enough for my family to swing there was no way that I could afford to attend here," O’Connell said.

O'Connell’s dad is disabled and her mom is unemployed. To make ends meet, she's been working in the Dean of Students office between classes since her first year of college.

“I’ve been doing work study as a way to pay for my tuition and one of my friends didn’t have to do work study and they were like ‘Oh we’re gonna go on a little excursion’ and I was like, ‘Oh I can’t, I have work.’ And they were like, ‘Wait there’s work here? And I was like, 'Yeah a lot of people work. I thought everybody had a job here.’”

Related: DOJ Looks Into Whether Harvard Discriminates Against Asian-Americans

Professors say enrolling and graduating more low-income students like O'Connell has brought more diverse viewpoints to campus, and at a time when many private colleges are pledging to increase diversity economists suggest they should follow Vassar's lead.

“At the selective colleges that have big endowments, we see the least amount of socioeconomic diversity,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Kahlenberg says he believes economic status should eclipse race in college admissions.

“As long as you are really fair about providing a leg up to disadvantaged students, the research is very clear that we can replicate current levels of racial and ethnic diversity in a way that’s gonna help the students who, all along, we should have been providing support for,” Kahlenberg said.

That's exactly what happened at Vassar.

By admitting more poor students, the college also enrolled more minority, first-generation and veteran students.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action, saying the University of Texas Austin can consider race among many other factors in admissions.  

Still, Vassar President Cappy Hill says colleges should do more to recruit and graduate more low-income students like O’Connell, so that their graduates reflect the rest of the country.

This weekend, the 23-year-old will graduate and her whole family will be in Poughkeepsie to watch her cross the stage.

"I'm probably gonna cry,” said O’Connell. “My mom will definitely cry. My mom's a crier. My dad might cry too.”

And that, O’Connell says, would be rare.

Earlier: Asian-American Coalition Files Complaint Against Yale, Brown, Dartmouth

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