Skip to content Skip to navigation
Skip to global navigation Menu

Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Preparatory School

Vassar College opened in 1865 with the intent to provide women with an education equal to the one their brothers were getting at Harvard and Yale. The trustees took care to hire the best professors and to plan a rigorous course of study. But the results for the first entrance examinations disappointed both trustees and professors. The results varied widely in quality, with a great portion being very poor, owing to the inadequate schooling available to women—instruction usually undertaken at home and confined to “practical” subjects with domestic applications. Nevertheless, the college was forced to admit a large number of these ill-prepared applicants for budgetary reasons. Matthew Vassar had contributed enough money to found the college, but not to endow it completely. The costs for running the college were covered by student tuition ($350 each), and thus, it was necessary to fill Main building to capacity. Thus, when 353 young women enrolled in the fall of 1865, many were under-qualified.

When classes began, it was found that students lacked the basic foundations to begin even the most elementary courses the faculty had planned to offer. Henry B. Buckham, professor of English, was forced to provide extra classes in basic English grammar to more than 100 students. Since the preparation of students covered so wide a range, the students were not divided into classes until the spring of 1867. At this time there were seventy-one preparatory students and 165 “special” preparatory students (older students or students staying for a shortened period of time), fifty-eight freshmen, thirty-six sophomores, eighteen juniors, and four seniors.

Until the early 1870s, the course of study for the preparatory division lasted for two years. In the first year, the girls studied Latin, ancient history, physical geography, and botany. In the second, they studied Latin, rhetoric, algebra, and a second language—French, Greek, or German. Students were required to be at least fifteen years of age (one year lower than the college’s minimum requirement), and pass exams in English grammar, geography, and U.S. history. In 1874 the course was extended to cover more than two years of work, with requirements given in semesters: five semesters of Latin, two of mathematics, two of rhetoric, one of physical geography, one of ancient history, and three semesters of German or French or two of Greek. Students chose three subjects to study each semester. They could also, by examination, fulfill the requirements of the preparatory school, omitting the subjects they were not deficient in, and thus shorten their course of study.

The number of preparatory students held steady at around 150 in the early- and mid-1870s, peaking in 1875-6 at 166. In the late 1870s and early 80s, however, enrollment in the preparatory school and in the regular college sharply declined. In 1883 Vassar had fewer than 300 students, compared with the original 353 and the highest number of 415. Something had to be done to reverse the downward trend.

By the 1880s, higher education for women had become a more familiar concept, and Wellesley and Smith Colleges had opened. Many women were choosing to complete their secondary education at Vassar in the preparatory division, and then go onto another school for collegiate instruction. A group of Boston alumnae, concerned about Vassar’s falling enrollment and reputation, as well as President Caldwell’s seeming unconcern about the fate of the college, wrote a letter to the board of Trustees, stating why they believed Vassar’s enrollment to be declining, chief among them increasing reliance upon the enrollment of preparatory students, increasing competition from other women’s colleges, and the growth of non-baccalaureate departments. The alumnae then placed most of the blame on the president, accusing him of doing nothing to attract top students or to fundraise, and continuing to let the preparatory school be a drain on the college’s resources and, more important, its reputation.

The trustees agreed with the alumnae, and President Caldwell resigned in 1885. J. Ryland Kendrick took over the presidency for the next year, and then the trustees appointed James Monroe Taylor. Under Taylor’s leadership, the preparatory division was dismantled by the fall of 1888.

Related Articles


Vassar College Catalogues 1865–1886

Historical Sketch of Vassar College. New York, NY: S. W. Green, 1876.

JLD, 2005