From racetrack to higher education

On a trip to England in 1945, Matthew Vassar, an English-born brewer and businessman, was inspired when he visited a hospital founded by one of his ancestors, according to With a significant amount of money and no children to spend it on, he wanted to found a hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

However, he instead was persuaded to create a liberal arts college for women that would rival Harvard and Yale—the best men's colleges at the time; he was persuaded by Milo P. Jewett, who later would become the first president of the college.

Vassar founded Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in 1861. Built on the grounds of a former racetrack, the college was referred to by the popular press as "Matthew's Folly," expressing the uncertainty about whether the college would succeed. That uncertainty faded as the school opened its doors Sept. 26, 1865, to 353 young women paying $350 for tuition.

From its inception, Vassar College was characterized by a bold, flexible curriculum, and graduates were recognized for their independent thought and going "to the source" for answers. The college's approach to learning was shaped by faculty members including astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Frederick Louis Ritter, one of the U.S.' first historians of music.

When creating the college, Vassar explained he wanted art to be an "educational force." As a result, Vassar College was the first college in the U.S. to include a museum and teaching collection among its facilities.

Continuing to lead the way, in 1969, Vassar became the first of the elite single-sex colleges to embrace co-education, opening its doors to men after declining an invitation to merge with Yale. Men now represent 45 percent of the student body of 2,450.

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