History

True story: Vassar College was built on the grounds of a former racetrack by a man who made his fortune brewing beer.

Matthew Vassar, the quintessential self-made man, had lots of money and no children to spend it on. On a trip to England in 1845, he visited a hospital founded by one of his ancestors, Thomas Guy, and became inspired to immortalize his own name by a similar undertaking. His first idea was to found a hospital in Poughkeepsie, but a man named Milo P. Jewett, who later became the first president of the college, convinced him that he would make a much bigger splash by creating a college for women—a college equal to Harvard and Yale, the best men’s colleges of the day.

In the popular press, his college was called “Matthew’s Folly,” and whether or not this “magnificent enterprise” would succeed was very much an open question. The first class of 353 students, paying $350 for tuition and “residence,” arrived in September 1865 and soon proved to the world that women were indeed as capable of intellectual achievement as men.

A hundred years later, in 1969, Vassar again led the way, becoming the first of the elite single-sex colleges to embrace coeducation. Today, the student body numbers 2,450—57% women, 43% men, from every region of the U.S. and over 55 foreign countries.

The unique traditions upon which the college was founded continue to be upheld today: a determination to excel, an appetite for experimentation, a dedication to the liberal arts and sciences, a willingness to lead, and a commitment to the advancement of equality.

Matthew Vassar

On February 26, 1861, Matthew Vassar presented the newly assembled Board of Trustees with a small tin box containing half his fortune, $408,000, and a deed of conveyance for 200 acres of land.