Vassar was founded as a women’s school under the name Vassar Female College in 1861. Its first president was Milo P. Jewett, who had previously been first president of another women’s school, Judson College; he led a staff of ten professors and twenty-one instructors. But after only a year, its founder, Matthew Vassar, had the word Female cut from the name, prompting some residents of the town of Poughkeepsie, New York to quip that its founder believed it might one day admit male students. The college became coeducational in 1969.
Vassar was the second of the Seven Sisters colleges, higher education schools that were formerly strictly for women, and historically sister institutions to the Ivy League. It was chartered by its namesake, brewer Matthew Vassar, in 1861 in the Hudson Valley, about 70 miles (110 km) north of New York City. The first person appointed to the Vassar faculty was the astronomer Maria Mitchell, in 1865.
Vassar adopted coeducation in 1969. However, immediately following World War II, Vassar accepted a very small number of male students on the G.I. Bill. Because Vassar’s charter prohibited male matriculants, the graduates were given diplomas via the University of the State of New York. These were reissued under the Vassar title after the school formally became co-educational. The formal decision to become co-ed came after its trustees declined an offer to merge with Yale University, its sibling institution, in the wave of mergers between the historically all-male colleges of the Ivy League and their Seven Sisters counterparts.Main Building, built in 1861 by architect James Renwick, Jr., had the most interior space of any building in the United States, until the U.S. Capitol was completed in 1868.
In its early years, Vassar was associated with the social elite of the Protestant establishment. E. Digby Baltzell writes that “upper-class WASP families educated their children at colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Vassar.” A select and elite few of Vassar’s students were allowed entry into the school’s secret society Delta Sigma Rho, started in 1922. Before becoming President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Trustee.
Roughly 2,450 students attend Vassar, and 98% live on campus. About 60% come from public high schools, and 40% come from private schools (both independent and religious). Vassar is currently 56% women and 44% men, at national average for national liberal arts colleges. Students are taught by more than 336 faculty members, virtually all holding the doctorate degree or its equivalent. The student-faculty ratio is 8:1, average class size, 17.
In recent freshman classes, students of color constituted 32–38% of matriculants. International students from over 60 countries make up 8-10% of the student body. In May 2007, in keeping with its commitment to diverse and equitable education, Vassar returned to a need-blind admissions policy wherein students are admitted by their academic and personal qualities, without regard to financial status.
Vassar president Frances D. Fergusson served for two decades. She retired in the spring of 2006, and was succeeded by Catharine Bond Hill, former provost at Williams College, who served for 10 years until she departed in 2016. Hill was replaced by Elizabeth Howe Bradley in 2017.